Zlati Meyer’s Only Crime Was Apologizing For Her West Virginia Tweet
West Virginia has the ninth-highest infant mortality rate among the states.
These are statistical facts and wholly undeniable. West Virginia’s problems are many, but you likely don’t care. Probably you’re more offended by the Detroit Free Press’ Zlati Meyer’s now-deleted Twitter quip about West Virginia needing to fix their “incest problem” than unacceptably high infant mortality.
A joke, however pedestrian, about incest being a problem in a systemically impoverished and isolated rural area is obviously a comment about the systemic poverty and isolation. Even the most nuance-challenged simpleton can recognize that fact. It's not as though she said something factually inaccurate like, you know, black people were really happy during Jim Crow.
Yet, Zlati Meyer was forced to duck for cover because of a 140-character joke that some people may have found in poor taste. Meanwhile virtually no one is taken to task for a system where poor and undereducated rural Americans in places like West Virginia will likely have grandchildren who will be equally poor and undereducated.
The last prominent national figure to pay attention to the systemic poverty in places like Appalachia was Robert Kennedy, and anyone who voted for him is either dead or collecting Social Security now.
Gawker’s Tom Scocca defined smarm as “a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.”
The outrage over Meyer’s tweet is pure smarm. It’s easier, I suppose, to attack a symbol (a joke about incest being rampant in impoverished rural communities) than to address the enormity of a substantive, real problem (rural poverty).
By wagging fingers at Meyer, people are at once able to assuage their own guilt about benefiting from inequality—sure, I’m healthier and wealthier than the average West Virginia coal miner’s daughter, but look how much I care about those people—while avoiding issues that seem so enormous and intractable.
As a culture we do this often.
Lenny Bruce had this routine where he’d ask his audience if there were any “n-----s” in the house. He’d keep after it until the crowd was thoroughly outraged, offended, or angry before giving the punch line—look, Bruce would say, if we were all this casual about the word n-----, then maybe six-year-old black girls wouldn’t come home from school crying because someone called her that.
Even if you don’t believe that word can be claimed from bigots, give Bruce this: We are too often more offended by the appearance of the word n----- then by the hate and violence and homicidal rage with which it is often spoken.
That’s why the Ku Klux Klan’s hate makes for daytime chat show entertainment and “concerned parents” regularly try to get Huckleberry Finn—the most profoundly anti-racist work by a white author ever—banned from schools over the book's language.
It’s also why I’m writing n-----, to protect our readers’ delicate sensibilities, instead of spelling out the word. As Michael Corleone once said, we’re all part of the same hypocrisy.
And that’s also why Zlati Meyer’s worst infraction was apologizing for and deleting her tweet.
A big part of her role at the Detroit Free Press is to be edgy and funny about newsworthy topics. Her tweet was just that. Meyer and, more importantly, Meyer’s employer shouldn’t have backed away from her comment because it offended some self-satisfied and noisy people. Stand by it. Defend it. Expand on the idea.
To back down and apologize is to reinforce the complacency that allows the problems of places like West Virginia to fester.
And that's something that is unacceptable.