Monday, September 20, 2010

Me vs. WTF Terre Haute? Part II

So a fella made a thoughtful, appropriate comment on the bottom of the previous WTF Terre Haute post, that I disagreed with enough that I wanted to make a long reply.  And then my reply got longer.  Then I got to part 4.  Then Blogger told me that the comment section can't allow comments that long.  Well, fine, I run this blog, I'll just make it a post.  Then after posting it, I continued to do further research, as I mention in the comments.  Near as I can now tell, WTF Terre Haute, is currently the second most popular thing in the Wabash valley on Facebook, barely behind ISU.  I'm still trying to figure out exactly what to make of that factoid. So this post is a little long winded, and I've covered some of this ground before, but read on if you like.

Here is the original comment (other than some contact info):
"You are really taking things out of perspective. WTF, Terre Haute? is a page that was developed by Mr. Wilson as a joke; just to poke fun at the silly things that happen around here (as do in other cities as well, the only reason this one was chosen is because it's the place where the creator currently lives. no reason to make a WTF Tallahassee page when he doesnt live there). Yes, I agree that some of the posts are mean spirited, but you have to realize that all the posts did not originate from the creator, which brings me to my second point, in which, you really should not have revealed the name of the page creator. Yes, I realize that you technically have not done anything wrong in doing so, but because of some of the crazies out there, you may have unleashed some dogs on a person who really doesnt deserve it.

This page needs to be taken lightly. ITS JUST A JOKE! If you dont like it, then ignore it. You dont have to read its stories. So ignore it, and if you cant, then I say youre trying to argue and criticize for the sake of having something to complain about.

By the way, just so you know, I agree that terre haute has made leaps and bounds above where it used to lie, even so much as a 2-3 years ago. But that doesnt change the fact that there are (pardon my language) some fucked up people around here (again, just as there would be in other places). The page is just a way to share those moments with others, even though some people get out of hand."
OK This deserves careful reply

1) Perspective:  The job of criticism is to put things into new and helpful perspectives.  Here's one, at the moment WTF Terre Haute has 4213 facebook fans and the Terre Haute Children's Museum has 1267 fans, even though WTF Terre Haute is much more recent and has vastly lower funding, and the Children's Museum is media blitzing as much as it can to froth up interest for its grand opening.  Umi Grill, which I highlighted most recently has 169.  4213 is more than 2% of the population of the Terre Haute Metro area.  I would be unsurprised if WTF gets as many actual views as the local news does, although I don't have the data.  WTF Terre Haute IS a joke, but it is not JUST a joke.  It is also a mood, a movement, a facebook fad.  It is successfully capturing a part of the spirit of our city, especially among younger people and people that hang out on Facebook.  Honestly, it is to Mr. Wilson's artistic credit that he has successfully tapped into this mood.  In many ways my real gripe is not with Mr. Wilson's art, as much as it is with this Hautian theme of self-hatred that he is successfully giving voice to.  When Terre Hautians, especially young Terre Hautians get frustrated they start beating up Terre Haute, and to a far greater and more noticeable degree than in any of the other 6 cities I've lived in as an adult, including 2 poorer than this one.  Also for perspective, I've now made 19 posts, only one of which was about WTF Terre Haute.  (Well OK I guess it's now 20 and 2).

2) Matt Wilson - Matt Wilson did assholey things to people I care about before he ever made WTF Terre Haute.  On WTF Terre Haute itself he was pretty assholey at first, even in the posts and comments that originated from him, not from other posters.  I would have no troubles finding examples of mean-spirited things he personally said on the blog.  That said, he has toned down his own actions some since then.  He added the motto "we laugh because we love."  He actually calms things down when they get too far out of hand now sometimes.  He is trying to go for a lighter sillier tone.  But many of his posters are not.  This is not just a comedy creation by one person, it is a Facebook fad or movement, and it is a joke, but not JUST a joke.  Matt Wilson has the makings of a competent comedian, a job where being an asshole is not a huge impediment, as long as you can bring more to the table than just that.  He began with what I've called before a "cheap local rip-off of 'People of Walmart'" but he's executed it well, and it's grown very fast.  Maybe he'll make something a little more original and a little less hate-fueled next time.  Certainly he's far funnier and more popular than I am.  I feel no remorse at ALL discussing him by name, as I would any other comedian.  Any comedian ought to be willing to take the flak for their work.  Maybe he should use a stage name next time like Jon Stuart Leibowitz AKA Jon Stewart does, that's pretty common strategy for comedians.  But you can always be tracked down if you make someone really want to try.  I cannot imagine for a second that he "really doesn't deserve it" if some of the "dogs" and "crazies" he has been intentionally riling up come back to bite him later.

3) "If you don't like it, then ignore it" - Bullshit! "This page needs to be taken lightly." - Bullshit!  That isn't true for movements or moods, and it isn't true for art either.  Art should be criticized, especially when it becomes important.  And WTF Terre Haute is big enough to be important.  When Terre Haute's mayor was interviewed Sept 8 for the radio segment "Ask the Mayor" (free download) the very first caller question was about WTF Terre Haute, which he was unfamiliar with.  This is how local politics works.
Mayor Bennett hadn't heard of WTF Terre Haute on Sept 8, he has now...

If WTWO created a segment on fucked up things that Terre Hautians do, and then used it mostly to pick on poor townies, there would be an uproar.  And right now Facebook is in the process of overtaking local TV, especially among younger folk, younger voters.  And make no mistake, there is definitely an element of class hatred to WTF Terre Haute, college kids and outsiders moving here, criticizing the locals, then moving away.  Every college town has some level of town-gown problems, and it is often one of the key issues in local politics.  So instead of ignoring art that is important, we criticize it by trying to explain what is going right and what is not, by putting it in perspective.  So lets try for perspective again.  There is a legitimate place for comedy about light-hearted fun poking at some of the foibles of our town, even of the poor folk of our town, and some of that happens on WTF.  Since the Show Rag folded in Feb of 10, there just hasn't been much local comedy, (at least that I've encountered) until WTF.  Further, it is necessary to have some place for people to vent their frustrations.  That isn't light-hearted, but it is still healthy and necessary, and that happens on WTF too.  Maybe this should be done socially, rather in in public media, but Facebook is a weird gray area between a social hang-out and public media, and some of the etiquette and appropriate social roles for it are still unclear.  But, there is a step beyond this, to giving voice to our darkest grudges, to the things that tear us apart, and this can become (or maybe already is) hate speech and scapegoating.  I see that on WTF, even if it isn't the intent of the founder and his friends.  ISU found a noose on campus a few years ago, and the people responsible tried the "just a joke" defense at first too.  It didn't fly.  In hard times, scapegoating is a very common political problem, and it can start as comedy.  And you CANNOT ignore it.  You oppose it before it grows to powerful, you shame the people who are tempted to it, and try to give them a bigger perspective.  Let me be clear, I'm not trying to accuse Peter or even Matt Wilson of this, I'm worried that WTF is a vehicle for it, that it gives voice to the darker side of our own town spirit, and I want to try to confront that.  That's it, WTF is a joke, but whether it means to be or not, it is also POLITICS, local politics, ugly local politics.  It is comedy driving a wedge between the University kids and the locals, re-invigorating old hurts and issues that both town and gown have been working to heal.  Perhaps we should make a comedy page called "Those Dumb College Kids" as a place to vent, we could call it comedy and laugh, but no that would be entirely counter-productive.  The University community and local government have really detested each other at some points in Terre Haute history (I think the commentor I'm replying to is even the person that first brought this old Time article to my attention).  But the town and gown have been really trying to work together more recently.  Rush Limbaugh began as a joke too, long ago, but he outgrew being JUST a joke pretty quickly.  Is the Daily Show just a joke today?  Should it be taken lightheartedly?  Or is it popular precisely because so many people long for news that is more honest and trustworthy than can usually be found on TV?  What similar longing is making WTF Terre Haute get so popular so fast? 

4) Honesty-  When I was a college kid did I hate the poor white trash in the little college town I went to?  Not quite, but close, and that's the term I'd have used in my head even if I didn't say it out loud.  I didn't really care about them enough to get to hatred, and I didn't understand them much at all.  I did not understand what that town was going through at the time (totally collapsed economy and pioneering rural meth in the early 90s).  I was soooo superior to those folk, that most of their foibles seemed humorously pathetic.  Like they had nothing better to do with their lives than get drunk all the time.  I would have LOVED a WTF Kirksville at age 20, although I'd have hated it by age 22.  (It wouldn't have been popular then and there, they were too scared and desperate to beat themselves up, and the college students mostly didn't care rather than reveling in it).  But I made friends with a townie meatpacker whose autistic daughter loved poetry and always wanted to come to the poetry events, and I gradually saw his perspective.  One of the weird families living next to my girlfriend were all murdered as part of a meth turf war which they had been involved with.  Other people's pain, their desperation, just didn't seem so funny.  There is a kind of strength in making fun of your OWN pain, your OWN desperation, if it is done just right.  Not a light-heartedness, exactly, but a light in the darkness.  Kurt Vonnegut, from Indy, was a master of this kind of humor.  Some of the Terre Haute self-flagellation probably is like this.  But it is a very delicate process, and it is easy for it to turn into making fun of some other poor pathetic fuck-up.  Or, worse, into blaming your problems on the poor pathetic fuck-up next to you, and refusing to own up to the poor pathetic fuck-up inside. 

So don't get me wrong, I see the appeal of WTF Terre Haute.  I don't exactly want to insult the people who like it either.  But, I've grown to dislike the part of me that takes glee in the fuck-ups of people worse off than me.  And of course, I'm jealous of and a bit scared and depressed by WTF's huge audience.  It is the second most popular thing in the Wabash valley on Facebook, as near as I can tell, and I just don't know what to make of that.  But that's what an art critic is, a jealous, bitter, confused, failed artist, who nonetheless succeeds at providing interesting perspectives on other people's art from time to time.


  1. More Perspective. The only Terre Haute organization that I can find that has more Facebook fans than WTF is ISU at 4393, and even it only just edges out WTF Terre Haute's 4219. The Terre Haute Rex, 2,835; Rose-Hulman, 2398; Baeslers, 2101; E-Bash 1,725 are the only other pages I can find even close, although I could probably find a bunch more under 2000. No other business, political party, media group, special interest, public event, etc. in the Wabash Valley is even close to generating the same level of Facebook interest as WTF Terre Haute, except ISU. Part of this is because Facebook is a weird medium, and others are behind in using it effectively. But if you want to talk about what is happening in the Wabash on Facebook, WTF Terre Haute is the clear stand-out story.

  2. The long beloved Terre Haute business Square Donuts has 1,476 Facebook fans. My hometown Columbia, Mo, is about the same size as Terre Haute, and has a long beloved local pizza place called Shakespeare's Pizza, it has 20,575 facebook fans. Maybe part of the message is we need to be using Facebook more effectively.

  3. Hmm, more people like the ISU Alumni Association (5,100), than like ISU itself, on Facebook. Not sure what to make of that, maybe there are a few other high popularity Facebook pages I haven't thought of yet.

  4. I think there's an unfortunate side effect of WTF Terre Haute that occurred to me while reading the "town-gown" part of this post. One of the features of the successful, thriving college towns that we have lived in in the past is that some small percentage of the graduates stay in town to work and live, rather than moving away. Terre Haute already has a serious problem with retaining its own graduates, even though it has several high-quality universities. The town itself is becoming better and better to live in, and should start to attract more of our own graduates to stay and start new businesses or work with startups. But how likely is this if the entire time the students are here for college they see constant slagging on the town from a vocal minority of people in TH? WTF fires up the town-gown split, and makes the town seem far worse than it really is, and much more something to flee at first chance than it should to anyone. Especially as popular as it is, WTF could be doing very real, measurable damage to our town when it would otherwise be turning the corner.

  5. Longtime establishment- Headstone And Friends has 2,788 friends on Facebook. Not bad for a place that still writes hand written receipts. I love Headstones.

    Keep up the good work Brian. Love your blog.
    Andrea H.

  6. I completely agree with Robyn M's comment. As a college student who recieved an invite to the WTF fb page, let me just say, I despised it after reading the first page of posts. The page is damaging, not funny, not witty, not smart. It is damaging and it attracts a host of tacky people who love to complain. It's bigger than hatred for a town, it's hatred toward people of this town. These are people that posters don't even know. It's judgmental and takes nothing into account except appearances. It goes no deeper than that and therefore, it's not just tacky, but it's pointless. What caliber of people have nothing better to do with their time than complain on this page? If Terre Haute and it's people bother you, DO something about it, don't bitch about it.

  7. Terre Haute, Indiana is the worst place to choose to live. Terre Haute has not right to even call itself part of the United States of America. Glad that I moved along time ago. Drown in ignorance inbred Terrophiles! You people need help out of the twilight zone.

    PS: thanks for the tip on WTF Terre Haute? blog and their facebook page. The blogs seems to have went dead but the facebook page seem pretty active. I will make sure to like it. Maybe I could start a new blog about how much your shitty town sucks ass,balls and all points between.
    Have nice day :)