Washington, Missouri, until a few weeks ago, was blessedly free from the progressive currents electrifying the cities of the coasts and the upper Midwest. An eavesdropping visitor would have found Democrats sitting cheek to jowl with Republicans, talking in mild midwestern tones—as though civility mattered more than “conviction.” If someone had proposed tearing down a statue or clogging the street with a political demonstration, a typical response would have been: “What’s wrong with that guy?”
A New Yorker might have grown restive here, because nothing really newsworthy ever happened. Crowds might have assembled for a marching band or a Corpus Christi procession, but a march for fundamental transformation? Well, good luck with that. Social life was a thing of visits, church picnics, ball games, and fundraisers for the Pregnancy Assistance Center, the Saint Francis Borgia Food Pantry, and the like. The Elks and the Knights of Columbus had no shortage of volunteers for their fish fries and breakfasts. Nor did the women of Washington seem resentful of these “fraternal” organizations. None of the women complained of the time and resources these men spent dispensing beer and barbecuing pork steaks and brats for worthy causes. A cynic might say that the charities were a pretext for the beer-drinking, but like all who see only self-interest in good deeds, he would indict only himself.
Things that inspire rage in Washington, D.C., went unnoticed in Washington, Missouri, like the name of the town itself. Our biggest bank is also named for the father of this country, with a portrait medallion adorning its apex, above the reach of spray paint—a fortuitous placement in light of recent events.
Like most of my fellow townsmen, I find wokeness and radicalism, to put it mildly, in bad taste. I try to live my life by the rules handed down on Sinai rather than those invented by Mr. Alinsky. A cosmopolite might find the pace of life here enervating. For me, one of the attractions of this tranquil little town on the banks of the Missouri River is its remoteness (50 miles) from the allure and horror, the culture and carnage, of St. Louis. Rusticating far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife suits me just fine. And I like pork steaks.
But in revolutionary times, the social climate can change in a flash and become as unrecognizable and as ugly as a headless monument.
It will hardly qualify as news from the Delphic oracle to observe that most big city newspapers are fomenters of civic agitation, subversion, and mendacity, richly deserving Trump’s epithet of fake news.
Before the death of George Floyd, and a certain inflammatory cartoon, our local paper seemed resistant to the more destructive fads of Big News. The Washington Missourian was as resolutely un-woke and predictably moderate as any small-town newspaper in the Midwest. Most of the news was local, dealing with high school and little league sports, arts and craft fairs, clean stream initiatives, and fund-raising efforts by civic groups. “Bee Stings Girl at Church Picnic” would be an acceptable item for the “People” section. (In a town of 14,000, many subscribers would know the unfortunate miss and sympathize with her plight.)
The editorial page balanced conservative columnists like Pat Buchanan and Walter Williams with liberals like Kathleen Parker and Dana Milbank. Letters to the editor might denounce Trump and his supporters as deluded Neanderthals, but others would commend the Donald as civilization’s last best hope against Democratic nihilism. Unlike the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (or The New York Times, which refused an anti-abortion letter by Walker Percy), the Missourian welcomed letters challenging the opinions of its owner/editor. And it didn’t practice the sly censorship of publishing only illiterate comments from the disfavored side.
All of this has changed because of a “racist” cartoon that the 90-year-old owner/editor of the Missourian ran on Wednesday, June 10. The drawing by Tom Stiglitz (an award-winning cartoonist with Creators Syndicate) depicted a man snatching a purse from a woman who screams, “Help! Somebody call 911!” The thief says, “Good luck with that, lady… we defunded the police.” A compressed form like the cartoon must ignore objections to make a point. But that was no excuse.
Had the woman been black and the man white, Washington, Missouri, and its newspaper might have continued in blissful obscurity, never warranting notice of the Washington Post, whose headline read: “ ‘Horrified’ Missouri newspaper owners resign over ‘racist’ cartoon—published by their dad.”
But, alas, the thief was black, the victim white. Such things happen, but to say them (or draw them) is “horrifying.” The cartoonist, now cancelled, said that his drawing was “based on violent crime numbers here in the U.S.” The same actuarial principle would oblige him to depict mainly white youths toppling statues. To compound his offense, the cartoonist declared that he saw “nothing to apologize for.” So the Missourian capitulated to the orchestrated letter campaign.
And it appears that their wokeness wasn’t feigned. The apology of the owner/editor— doubtless under pressure from his three daughters—was insufficiently self-abasing. The daughters, including the one replacing her father, bruited the same exalted principles as the letter-writers, and the Black Lives Matter sympathizers, now demonstrating in the streets and around the newspaper office. Unlike the Saint Louis thugs, our home-grown variety looked rather slack, unintimidating, and undermuscled. They carried signs of “CAN’T EXPLAIN. I’VE GOT A WORLD TO CHANGE,” and “I CAN’T BREATHE.” But with a Slurpy-sipper in the ranks, they looked neither oppressed nor threatening.
The now-habitual cant about “peaceful protesters” was recycled again for our local activists. And, indeed, they neither looted nor littered. But as Joseph de Maistre said of America’s incipient democracy, “I know nothing so provoking as the praise showered on this babe-in-arms: let it grow.”
Those letters to the editor, without exception, expressed dismay, sadness, and—oh, the horror! The longest of them, signed by “160 Community Supporters,” typified the sentiment. They felt compelled to “express our horror” over the cartoon, but hoped it could be an opportunity for the Missourian to change and to learn from them. To wit: cashier the racist cartoonist, issue a front-page apology, oust the 90-year-old owner/editor, i.e., their father, and make donations to organizations “working to improve the lives of minorities,” such as Black Lives Matter and the Southern Poverty Law Center. They recognized that “defund” was a controversial word, but given the tainted genesis of America’s law enforcement, it cried out for implementation: “The fact is that policing in the U.S. was established as an institution to enforce slavery.”
I don’t know if the reborn Missourian has contributed yet to BLM or other minority-improving agencies, but all of the other “suggestions” were promptly and dutifully implemented. Papa Lear resigned, and the daughters of the disgraced nonagenarian didn’t include a Cordelia. They assured the 160 supporters, and other horrified letter writers, that their hands were clean. It had been their father’s wretched decision. In fact, two of the sisters resigned in protest (temporarily, one supposes) and recruited their sibling, who has experience in the St. Louis business press, to take over. The new management was appalled at police brutality and repudiated that racist cartoon, lamenting the “pain and offense it caused.” They denounced “ANY form of racism.”
Amidst all of these filial protestations of horror, the murder of Captain David Dorn in nearby St. Louis, and the mayhem enabled by the “peaceful protests” across the nation, were not deemed newsworthy.
This overnight transfiguration of a moderate, small-town paper into a miniature version of the Saint Louis Post Dispatch—like a skiff being sucked into the wake of a Missouri River barge—has a certain opera buffa appeal. But I couldn’t laugh. Putting aside Evelyn Waugh’s advice, that those who abandon themselves to letter-to-the-editor controversies are “proverbially unbalanced,” I wrote to The Missourian. The one-sided and dangerous coverage of the protestors (always good) and the cops (always bad) had cracked my resolve. I won’t extend this piece with a reproduction but suffice it to say that it defended the police against what is now a combustible brew of confusion, false witness, and self-righteousness.
In Minneapolis, New York, or St. Louis, speaking of the police with insufficient malice risks subjection to a Maoist-style shaming ritual or physical danger. It’s not so bad in small towns like Washington. There you may say or write whatever you please. Judging from my recent experience, the local paper won’t denounce you, nor, as the new editor told me, will they print a “controversial” letter. Wokeness and inclusivity demand as much. The local police, on the other hand, were glad to get it.