All People in Mississippi Are Not Toothless Rednecks

Bill Maher, the Daily Show, and the trouble with nutpicking.

Two weeks ago, HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher broadcast a segment that quickly became controversial, and to me represents one of the more unfortunate trends in recent political discourse.

The segment was filmed around the time of the Mississippi Republican presidential primary, and filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi—daughter of the former House speaker—interviewed voters about the election and President Obama, pointing out that Mississippi is both the nation’s poorest state and its most conservative. The three-minute video featured several people fitting every liberal’s worst stereotypes of conservative rednecks in the deep South: gun-toting, missing teeth, nostalgic for the Confederacy, and quick to make ostentatiously racist comments about the President and black people in general.

You don’t have to be a conservative—and I’m surely not one—to see just how unseemly, not to mention viciously condescending, the segment was. It was a wealthy liberal filmmaker swooping into an impoverished area to record poor, uneducated people making incriminating statements, all for the amusement of an audience of a liberal-leaning talk show on pay cable. (The segment was a sort of sequel to a Pelosi-directed HBO documentary from 2009 called “Right America, Feeling Wronged”; I wrote about it at the time here.)

Maher issued a disclaimer before the segment that Pelosi “did not cherrypick these people,” and that this was simply what she encountered when visiting Mississippi. But that claim just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; she clearly filmed more than three minutes of footage, and I’ve got a feeling there’s at least a person or two in that state who isn’t a walking, talking redneck stereotype, and the filmmaker wasn’t so interested in talking to them.

After a week of outcry over how unfair and mean-spirited the piece was, Maher’s show, in the interest of “balance,” last Friday broadcast a follow-up segment. The second piece had Pelosi visiting a New York City welfare office and rather than pander to the basest liberal stereotypes of conservatives, did the opposite: It featured mostly black interviewees cheerfully admitting that they have no interest in work and prefer a welfare lifestyle financed by free taxpayer money, with one guy even referring to his benefits as “Obama bucks.”

This was just as condescending as the Mississippi bit, only much uglier and historically loaded; it’s the Southern Strategy spoken out loud, the sort of material that Jesse Helms might have comfortably used in a campaign ad. And once again, if anyone Pelosi interviewed told her that they’re ashamed to be on welfare and looking to get to work as soon as they can, she didn’t use that in the piece. In fact, the only thing the two pieces have in common is the interviewer’s contemptuous sneering at poor people.

It’s hard to imagine a more lazy and insulting form of documentary filmmaking: Take a video camera, spend an afternoon interviewing people, cut together the 10 or so most mockable people and comments, and call it a day. Similar, more amateur videos have been a staple of Internet political commentary in recent years, with political opponents showing up at an Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party or pro-Israel rally, rolling tape, and cutting together the most incendiary or embarrassing quotes. Presto: Here’s proof that the entirety of “the left” or “the right” is crazy or extremist or anti-Semitic or evil.

Whoever does it, it’s embarrassing—it’s Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking,” repackaged as political commentary. Not to mention, it’s an insult to documentary filmmakers who actually attempt to capture nuance and complexity in their work, rather than simply mock and embarrass the people they’re interviewing.

This is a form of what’s known in the blogosphere as “nutpicking,” a term coined in 2006 by liberal blogger Kevin Drum. It’s a straw-man fallacy in which commentators dig deep into the trenches of comments or message boards of their opponents, find a particularly controversial statement, and use it to beat the opposition over the head. If one commenter on a 2,000-comment Daily Kos thread compared George W. Bush to Hitler, that’s extrapolated to “the left thinks Bush is Hitler.” Bill O’Reilly spent years making nutpicking an art form, regularly telling his audience that websites he didn’t like were tantamount to Nazis because they didn’t delete comments quickly enough, and calling on Democratic politicians to denounce these anonymous web users.

The advent of YouTube migrated the phenomenon to video, and now we have the Pelosi segments.

Mock-the-yokels humor is low enough, especially when it comes attached to a political agenda. The Daily Show, in particular, was often guilty of this in its early years. Applying the same insulting, cheap-shot formula to poor black people on welfare isn’t balance; it takes the same problem and makes it a whole lot worse. There’s way too much stereotyping and ethnic tribalism in our politics as it is.