The Nation's Pulse

Washed Up

It wasn't just Democrats who took a bath this week.

By 11.4.10

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As a Midwesterner who takes a minimum of two showers a day, I was not so much offended, as puzzled, by Katie Couric's remarks regarding her recent tour of the "great unwashed middle of the country."

I am aware that not everyone in the Midwest has the compulsive bathing habits I have. My lovely hippie fiancée, who has the annoying habit of conserving water, only washes once per day and finds my second or third shower "obsessive." True, but I happen to enjoy the feel of hot water pelting my middle-aged body, and see no reason to deprive myself of this one petty extravagance.

More to the point, it has been my experience that personal hygiene is far more lax on the coasts, than the Midwest. This explains my fiancée's Seattle and Portland friends' preference for the rank bouquet of sweat, sandalwood, and patchouli to good old soap and water.

Here in the Midwest you would be hard pressed to find many people who go about their day reeking of BO. Sure, every once in a while you might come across a Mennonite farmer in the IGA (as I did the other day) who smells kind of ripe, as I did the other day, but it's a rarity and even our homeless winos are strict about performing their daily ablutions in the restrooms of our cities' once grand public libraries.

Heritage plays a role in this. Much of the Midwest was settled by Germanic peoples -- Bavarian Catholics (the so-called "scrubby Dutch," a corruption of the German word Deutsche) and Prussian and Norwegian Lutherans to whom cleanliness was not only a virtue, but a moral obligation. You will not find a people more obsessed with purity -- in all its forms -- than the Germans. Back in the early 1990s, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland, I would sometimes slip over the border to east Germany. I recall feeling instantly and overwhelmingly oppressed -- not by the remnants of communism or fascism -- but by the extreme cleanliness and order of the place. The feeling was so palpable that I would experience a sudden rush of relief upon returning to "dirty Poland." While the Midwest's old Germanic character has been diluted significantly over the years, I still occasionally hear tourists remark how surprisingly clean St. Louis is.

SEVERAL COMMENTATORS have picked up on Katie's caustic remarks as more proof that the coastal elites look down (sometimes literally) on those of us whose misfortune it is to live in the "fly-over states." That's some balancing act: disparaging unwashed, gun-toting, Bible-clinging Midwesterners, while allegedly devoting one's every waking hour to concerns about the plight of the working man and the inner-city and rural poor, many of whom happen to reside -- you guessed it -- in Middle America.

And what of the countless liberals who live in Midwestern cities and university towns? What must Katie's fellow travelers in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin think of being lumped in with the Great Unwashed of Middle America? She was taken out of context, they doubtless say. Besides when the CBS anchor refers to the Great Unwashed of Middle America she clearly means filthy, middle class, suburban Republicans.

I doubt Katie meant to insult a large portion of her viewers. More likely, she probably just thinks in clichés. Usually when we hear the CBS anchor speak, she is reading someone else's words, someone who can actually construct sentences with some measure of competency. Left to her own devices, Katie is probably unable to come up with a single coherent sentence, and doubtless reaches for whatever old chestnuts pop into her head.

Soon after the piece was published, Katie tried to excuse her remarks by Tweeting Dictionary.com's definition of Great Unwashed: "of the general public, populace or masses. Referring to overlooked people who r politically in the middle!" Was the Oxford English Dictionary too costly for the $15 million journo? Oh, I see, the OED calls the phrase "derogatory," and refers to "the mass or multitude of ordinary people" (emphasis mine).

Only slightly less disturbing is the realization that America's number one newscaster has no idea where the Midwest is. Her tour to "divine the mood" of those in the "middle of the country" took her to Boston, Philadelphia, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Chicago. Basically, you had one coastal elite asking other east coasters what kind of mood Middle Americans are in. I can tell you this much, we were in a lot better mood before the CBS Evening News anchor called us stinky.

But we Midwesterners are a forgiving folk. We don't hold a grudge, especially toward a bona fide A-list celebrity. That said, Katie is welcome to come "divine my mood" any time. Just as long as she calls ahead. I'll need time to put on a clean pair of socks.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.