Sometimes you have to be the person to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
It’s been almost two weeks since the infamous Courtney Forbes “Don’t Settle, Charleston” editorial. I’ve been trying to decide the best way, or if I even wanted, to craft a response to Courtney’s piece. On my Facebook newsfeed, reaction to Courtney’s piece ranged from about a quarter of the people who felt that it was dead-on, while the remainder thought it was outrageous hogwash. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure initially that her piece needed a rebuttal. The need to answer Courtney built up in me over a few days.
My gut reaction was to respond with a goofy Lewis Black-style rant. Then I thought a cool, calm, reasoned approach might be best. After having considered the issue and listened to Courtney’s appearance on The Front Porch podcast from WV Public Broadcasting, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best response will be to alternate between the two approaches. After all, her original editorial seemed like two unrelated essays spliced together, so a similar approach might work for me.
The reason I feel the need to respond is that Courtney has managed to parlay her editorial into some measure of local minor celebrity with appearances on local podcasts and her name on the lips of people who talk about such things. People are heaping praise on her for her editorial. I don’t want to burst her bubble here, but I think most of that praise is undeserved. Her “conversation starter” didn’t really start the conversation that she thinks it did.
See, the problem is that I know Courtney. I don’t know her well. I met her a few months ago when she started the WV Writer’s Group that meets at DigiSo. I’ve had a few conversations with her and they all have one running thread. The running thread is not “How can we make Charleston a better place to live?” Every single time I’ve spoken to Courtney, she has steered the topic of conversation to “How can I meet somebody?” I am not alone in noticing this about Courtney.
I have to admit that I was gobsmacked when Courtney started the first WV Writer’s meeting by explaining that she only started the group so she could meet people her own age. First of all, that doesn’t strike me as the purest of motives to start a group of any kind. Second, I don’t think anybody showed up who was even close to Courtney’s age. Still, I continued to attend meetings when I could, even when Courtney couldn’t be bothered to show up.
In her piece, Courtney lays out a few areas where West Virginia and Charleston need to make improvements. Her concerns about the environment and educational system are perfectly valid. I hope she realizes that she’s hardly the first person to notice these things and that many of us have been saying them and working hard to correct these problems for years. Progress is slow. This is not an instant gratification game. Courtney, that conversation started before you were born and it will continue long after you’re gone.
Courtney seems to want to depict this as some kind of generation gap issue, and it’s not. Our state’s problems are political, not generational. Creating further divisions between like-minded, progressive individuals is not going to do anything to improve the living conditions here. I realize that some of what I’m writing might look like the very kind of dismissive attitude that Courtney decries in her piece. It is not intended as a dismissal of the ideas of all young people. I would be equally critical of someone of any age who made the same off-the-wall comments that Courtney does in her editorial.
Courtney attempts to deflect criticism of her piece by saying that we defend our choice to stay here as loyalty. It’s not that simple. Loyalty is not a negative trait. True loyalty is staying and working to change a broken system. Courtney is not the first person to realize that West Virginia has an entrenched and corrupt political process that is almost entirely controlled by big businesses who want the freedom to pollute and exploit workers without regulation. This is not some great revelation that we needed handed down to us from a savior- prophet. The valid points in Courtney’s piece are old news.
It would be different if she offered anything resembling a possible solution, but just saying, in effect, “I’m leaving, You guys have problems.” is not even remotely productive. She complains that we are not welcoming to strangers and that we don’t take the ideas of young people seriously.
She does this without offering up any ideas for us to take seriously.
In Courtney’s piece, I sensed an awful lot of projection. Projection and desperation. She blames Charleston for not attracting a big enough dating pool to suit her. She was not happy here. She complained that she stayed at home one weekend because she couldn’t find anything to do.
First of all, I have to call BS on that. This town has TOO MUCH stuff to do sometimes. I recently wrote about how we have more cool stuff going on than we have an audience for said cool stuff.
On The Front Porch podcast, Courtney acknowledged that there actually were some cool things going on in town but she never knew about them because we don’t have a website or any other way for people to find out about cool stuff.
Let me pause here for a moment and take a deep breath.
For almost ten freaking years, I have gone above and beyond and smashed my head against the wall to tell my readers about cool, interesting, fringe events happening all over this area–music, art exhibits, poetry readings, professional wrestling, gaming, improv comedy, pop culture conventions, life drawing classes, burlesque shows, stand up comedy, public art, alternative sports, gourmet cooking, bookfairs, blogger meet-ups, political rallies, independent film festivals–I cover that stuff in PopCult and I post fresh content every day!
I’m not being arrogant when I get angry that Courtney said there’s not a website where people can find out about cool things happening in town. I don’t expect people to automatically know what I do here in PopCult. I’m angry because when I first met Courtney, I introduced myself, told her what I did, shook her hand, and gave her a business card with the URL for this very blog which you are now reading. There is no excuse for her to pretend that the PopCult blog or the Calendar section of The Gazz or the Calendar section of the Daily Mail or the event calendar at Voices of Appalachia do not exist.
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it think.
I write this blog. I can’t print it out and chase down strangers to make them read it. Please don’t blame the entire city because you’re too lazy or ignorant to click over to a website or pick up a newspaper to find out what’s going on in town. You have to make an effort to fit in, no matter where you are.
I’m reminded of a story about a man who prayed every day of his life. Every day he would pray, “Dear God, please let me win the lottery.” When he got married, he would pray, “Dear God, please let me win the lottery so I can buy a house for my wife.” As he raised his family, he prayed, “Dear God, please let me win the lottery so I may send my children to college.” After his children had grown he prayed, “Dear God, please let me win the lottery so I can provide for my children and grandchildren.”
The man died and went to heaven where he met God and he said, “Dear God, why didn’t you let me win the lottery so I could have a legacy to leave my children and grandchildren?”
And God replied, “You have to meet me halfway. You never bought a ticket.”
The point of that story is that Courtney never seemed to open up to the idea of meeting us halfway–really reaching out and being part of Charleston. She treated us like a charity case. She compares herself to VISTA volunteers. That is so condescending and insulting. She grew up in this area. There is no excuse for her to act like an outsider.
Then we get to what was most galling about Courtney’s piece. She says that we’re not welcoming to strangers. I’ve been on this planet more than twice as long as Courtney has. I’ve seen people leave Charleston. I’ve seen people return to Charleston with their tail between their legs. I’ve seen strangers and visitors come to town and way more often than not, outsiders and returning natives have been made to feel exceptionally welcome here.
Unless they willfully don’t want to be.
Courtney tells a “what if” story about spending a weekend doing nothing, coming in to work, telling her co-workers about it, and being told, “we were sitting at home with the door unlocked. Why didn’t you come in?”
How did Courtney respond to this extremely welcoming and gracious, obviously implicit, invitation? She mocked it–publicly and in print.
How mortifying that must have been for the hypothetical people who invited this young woman into their home to be ridiculed in print for not being welcoming enough.
I mean, seriously, what the hell?
Why would you invent an anecdote about your co-workers, who barely know you, warmly inviting you into their own home and use that as an example of how we don’t welcome strangers?
Courtney then quotes a VISTA volunteer, “I’m having trouble making friends. Am I doing something wrong?” The answer is “Yes. Yes you must be doing something wrong.” Charleston is a ridiculously friendly town. It’s one of our strongest selling points–one of the few things we do well. If you can’t make friends here it’s because you don’t want to.
Courtney started the writer’s group at DigiSo and I think she may well have benefited from bringing her piece in for a little work-shopping before submitting it for publication.
I saw a few people on Facebook posting links to Courtney’s piece, referring to it as “eloquent,” “well thought-out,” and “a beacon of constructive criticism.” It is none of those things. Allow me to critique…
Courtney opens her piece by explaining that she’s not leaving because she thinks she’s better than us. Given that the headline was “Don’t Settle, Charleston,” this comes off much the same as when somebody prefaces a statement with “I’m not racist, but…”
Courtney mixes what reads like a high school student’s brief essay on “problems in West Virginia” with personal anecdotes that, to be frank, are whiny, self-centered and filled with cloying self-pity and a near total lack of personal responsibility. It’s Charleston’s fault that she can’t meet people her own age, not hers.
Let’s be clear. Saying that people who stay here have “settled” is arrogant and insulting and hurtful to the many, many people who are here by choice. Also, proclaiming your piece to be “tough love” is condescension beyond the pale. If you couldn’t cut it here and you’re leaving town, you don’t get to lecture us on the way out. There was nothing about serious issues in her editorial that hasn’t been said tens of thousands of times before by people with the resolve to stay here and try to fix the problems.
What Courtney has crafted is not thought-provoking. It’s trolling. It is not constructive criticism. It’s a petulant, angry farewell. Essentially, it’s a passive-aggressive “Dear John” letter filled with a laundry list of reasons why “John” (in this case, Charleston) is no damn good and everything is his fault.
Courtney’s piece did have one positive effect: It had entertainment value. When I got to the end of this long screed about why she felt she had to leave Charleston because of our unfriendliness and many defects, right at the bottom it said, “Courtney Forbes, of Charleston, is moving to Philadelphia.”
I seriously laughed long and loud for about five minutes when I read that. That, my friends, was an Onion-quality punchline.
The thing is, I like Courtney. She seemed like a nice kid. “Kid” being the operative word here. She complains about being mistaken for an intern. She says that young people are not taken seriously in this town. I have to explain something to Courtney: It’s all in the way you carry yourself. If you turn every conversation into a discussion of why you can’t meet people, nobody is going to take you seriously. In order to be treated as an adult with serious ideas worth considering, you have to act like one. That’s true everywhere, not just in Charleston.
I know people younger than Courtney who are already excelling in their business endeavors. They act like they’re supposed to be where they are to do serious business. They are not content to simply be a “mascot.”
I really don’t want to come across as too mean here, but Courtney addresses a few things from a perspective that I simply can’t respect. Ageism runs both ways and it is far more difficult for someone over fifty to land a job doing anything creative in this town than it is for someone under thirty. You can’t constantly complain that you aren’t able to meet anyone your own age, and then wonder why people who aren’t your age don’t respect your contributions. You’re the one limiting yourself to interacting with a narrow age group.
Also, one more technical critique based on your podcast appearance: “Impact” is not a verb. Using it as one will make professional people cringe and think less of you. Try using “affect,” instead.
I can sympathize with the plight of being single, even though the last time I was single was before Courtney was born. I remember what it’s like to be alone and to feel alienated and left out. It’s not a problem that only affects young people. I hope she doesn’t think she’s the only person in the world who has trouble meeting that certain someone. I also hope she doesn’t think that Charleston is unique in not having a well-stocked supply of eager young Prince Charmings waiting to sweep her off her feet.
In the last year, I’ve been to Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. I had no problem fitting in in any of those cities. People want to be friendly. You simply have to have a certain amount of personal confidence and you have to be willing to be friendly yourself. If you have that, then you can fit in almost anywhere.
However, in Philadelphia, “Brotherly Love” is an ironic slogan. Courtney, they may eat you alive there. I hope they don’t. I hope you get into town and very quickly find a soul mate so that you can attain the inner peace that seems to so elude you while you’re single. If that doesn’t happen, I’m afraid you’ll be writing an angry farewell to Philly sooner than you expect.
Charleston can use all of the bright, talented, young people that we can get. However, it’s not going to do the city any good if we retain people who are, to be frank, miserable here. It makes the job of progressive-minded people harder when young people choose to leave the state rather than stay and fight the good fight, but it’s your life choice and if you’re not happy here, then by all means, follow your heart and leave.
Just don’t try to say that it’s all because the people here “settled” and not because you really didn’t want to be here in the first place.
Courtney says she wanted her piece to be a conversation starter. Sadly, that conversation seems not to be, “Gosh, here’s how we can make Charleston a better place.” The conversation is, “What is that girl’s problem?” I’ve been asked that question at least once every day since her editorial was published.
It’s one thing to leave. It’s another thing to offer constructive criticism. But it’s yet a different all together thing to scream at the top of your lungs, “HEY EVERYBODY, LOOK AT ME, I’M LEAVING AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!” Courtney, you did indeed get our attention. However, I don’t think it’s quite the kind of attention that you wanted.
Congratulations on composing an infuriating, self-important and wrong-headed essay about why you’re leaving. Good luck in your future edeavors.
Note: This piece has been edited to clarify that Courtney’s story about her co-workers was fictional.
ArtWalk Mini Photo Essay
Your PopCulteer only made it to three stops last night on a rainy ArtWalk, but they were great stops. I’m not doing captions because I think I’ve loaded this post with enough words already. Check out this brief photo essay…
Stray Dog Antiques
Alt/Art at ArtWalk
Stuff To Do Memorial Day Weekend Edition
We’re mixing it all up for the holiday weekend. Check the dates on the graphics.
That is it for this week’s PopCulteer. Thank you for reading this far. Check back for all our regular features every day of the week, and have a wonderful holiday weekend.