Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Politeness as Liberalism

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Tim Bray, a tech worker for Google hailing from Vancouver, quit recently, citing that he refused to relocate to California because the Bay Area was too racist, crowded, incestuous and overpriced. This brought to my mind an anecdote I had once heard about someone complaining about the rudeness of New Yorkers: “They were pushy, mean and jostled me all the time.”

“Oh, really? When did you come and where did you go?”

“Christmas and Rockefeller Center.”

“Then the people you experienced were not New Yorkers, but your fellow tourists.”

The problems with bigotry in the tech world is well-documented, as is the tech world’s impact on the Bay Area’s employment and housing situation. John Oliver has, as a true Daily Show alumnus, played the court jester and spoken to these very issues at the annual “Crunchies,” an awards ceremony the tech industry gives itself. There is also, of course, the fact that Vancouver is no bed of roses, even considering that, like its sister cities in the Pacific Northwest, it’s one of the whitest cities on the continent.

In effect, we have a tech worker complaining about the ills of tech workers, but more importantly, we have a person attempting to take the moral high ground from a position that is insufficiently considered. This is more than just a “casting stones” issue, however, as it speaks to an incipient aspect of liberalism that I rather detest.

It’s an aspect I had only begun to see while in an Irish bar up in the Heights with a couple of Midwestern WASPs who had recently moved to the city. They, of course, proudly displayed their liberal and libertine nature as a means of fitting in but were also extraordinarily easy to offend. This struck me, because I’m no stranger to Irish bars and pub conversation. A lot of hinky shit gets said on the regular. What I am a stranger to is the culture of Midwestern WASPs, and indeed when a comment of mine was retorted with a joke against Lutherans, I knew I was in over my head.

Where the disconnect would occur was when they would make off-hand comments about minorities or, really, anybody not them, but were made uncomfortable if, in the same manner, comments were made about them. To them, I surmised, the dominant culture was whatever they did, and being surrounded by “aberrations” was, to put it politely, an intense curiosity. Scrutiny went one way. They viewed themselves, despite all this, as liberals. They vote Democrat, they lament the party’s centrism and spinelessness, they spam Facebook with a regular supply of fresh outrages. Yet. Now, I’m obviously a commie pinko who grew up in a bubble – I believe Woody Allen called us homosexual Jewish pornographers – but I know liberalism and they ain’t it.

I’m wrong, of course. That is to say, I am a commie pinko, but I don’t live in a bubble: Quite the opposite. Everybody else lives in a bubble. This city is one of the few places in the world devoid of bubble. I wondered why was offending them so much, when things they would say simply wouldn’t fly in mixed company (which New York practically always is), but the heart of the issue is that, without reminder of otherness, one takes one’s own culture to be the standard by which all are judged. Midwestern WASPs are, by their dominance and insularity in much of the heartland, choking the very idea of pluralism and therefore liberalism.

I say Midwestern, but it’s actually most evident not in Ohio and Wisconsin but in Oregon and Washington, as well as points north. Their brand of liberalism is not like New York or Philadelphia. It can’t be: Seattle and Portland are the whitest cities in America, and they’re only getting whiter. They’re all deeply leftist – they sport high concentrations of liberal arts colleges, neo-hippies and, of course, Democratic voters – but their demographics come in stark contrast to such a self-image.

The reason for this is simple: They’re not as liberal as they claim they are. This is not, as I learned, what they would prefer to hear. This is the place where politeness comes in.

The nature of an open and frank discussion is central to my concept of public discourse and the public house. Namely, you show respect to your companion by speaking directly to their views and they do the same to you. To do otherwise is to make a mockery of the conversation and insult those who you are speaking with: Deflecting or skirting the subject matter is to deem their opinions on it immaterial. This scared the transplants.

Their response was to complain that I was “aggressive,” and that I did not properly offer the respect their opinions warranted. Specifically, by countering their opinions, I was insulting them personally. This surprised me: By giving my full attention and directly engaging them, I was respecting them, putting thought to their comments and stating exactly where I stood. Why hide behind a mask of politeness? But politeness is what they wanted. That decorum had become a cloak for them, because without it they would have to defend their views, which I garnered were closely guarded.

There’s a word I started hearing used, like punctuation: “Fair.” “That’s fair.” It became a decorous means in which to acknowledge that I had made a point, but there would not be an answer to it. They were keeping up a rhetorical politeness, but what I heard was “fuck you, shut up already.” They offered views on hot button topics, but didn’t want to argue them further. This is disconcerting: Liberalism is forged through hammering out differences, not simply respecting different views. Political correctness isn’t correctness. Politeness isn’t liberalism.

This hideous affectation presents strange hypocrites like Tim Bray, who hides behind a mask of liberalism but doesn’t actually address either the issues or his involvement in them. The rhetoric is there, but it is a fragile rhetoric. It doesn’t want to be disturbed. The mask is doing its job, and to question it would draw out deeper issues that don’t want to be drawn out. It is an emotional polyp and it needs to be popped.

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