Sunday, January 29, 2006

So Seattle's a liberal city, huh...?

From the forthcoming February issue of The Seattle Sinner.

By Jeremy M. Barker

So, kudos to Seattle Weekly writer Philip Dawdy. Dawdy, best noted for a series of articles last year on the region's failure to properly help those with psychological problems, has now turned his barbed pen on what he's terming Seattle's "Big Nanny," the city's new-found desire to regulate every aspect of our daily lives for immoral or unhealthful behavior. In the Jan. 18th issue, Dawdy began his attack with a lengthy feature, "Big Nanny Is Watching You." He starts off by catching our local "tobacco czar" Roger Valdez making a statement of hubristic overreach: "Americans think they have a lot rights they really don't have. Smoking is one of those things where people think they have the right to smoke, but you don't."

Oh, is that how it is now?

I for one want to thank and praise Mr. Valdez; it's good to know that those who know what’s best for me no longer feel constrained to put it any other way. I wonder, is Mr. Valdez a justice or a lawyer or somehow otherwise qualified to dictate what we may or may not do? The context of his comment came in relation to the anti-smoking movement's attempt to get us to stop smoking in our homes; essentially, Mr. Valdez is throwing his lot in with the Republican Right. With the ascension of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, where he'll become the fourth determinedly right-wing vote (along with Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts) in opposing our right to privacy, Valdez may just turn out to be correct. After all, the right to privacy, a product of legal precedent rather than constitutional amendment, only protects those little things like a woman's right to choose abortion or a gay man's right to have sex with another man. You know, that stuff we liberal Seattleites don't support or anything, so no big if the Republicans get rid of it.

This isn't a small issue and it's not going to go away. Smoking is one target. Strip clubs are another, as are pornography, beer and other forms of free expression and commerce.

For some people, this may seem at odds with our city's purported leftiness, but that's a mistake based on a simple reading of partisan politics; Dawdy's right on when he invokes H.L. Mencken's "uplifters" to describe our new breed of public health and welfare radicals. Both the political right and left has a long and disturbing history of invading our daily life in the name of the public good. An excellent historian of such overreach is Evergreen College Professor Stephanie Coontz. Her book The Way We Never Were, tracks attempts to regulate American family life while revealing our most cherished images of familial normality to be contradictory confabulations. The nuclear family doesn't much fit with a family that has grandparents playing a major role in their grandchildren's lives, now does it? Yet time and time again, Coontz records extraordinary efforts by one group to make another better. Consider how many immigrant children in the early 20th century were removed from their parents' custody by a state that assumed it could raise them better. Or consider the forced sterilization of those with undesirable genetic traits during the eugenics regime.

Concurrent to "liberal" Seattle's slide into nanny state-dom is the political trend that Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter With Kansas and the editor of The Baffler, has decried. Famously arguing in What's the Matter With Kansas that the Republicans routinely win elections by garnering the votes of working class social conservatives while pursuing economic policies to those voters' detriment, Frank is equally opposed to contemporary liberalism that emphasizes a perceived cultural divide between so-called "red" and "blue" states. Writing in the Nov. 28, 2004 edition of The New York Times Book Review, Frank argued, in reference to the book The Great Divide: "The essential cleavage in American life, the authors argue, is not between left and right or business class and working class; instead, it is a regional matter, a cultural divide between the states, polarized and unbridgeable. One America, to judge from the book's illustrations, works with lovable robots and lives in ‘vibrant' cities with ballet troupes, super-creative Frank Gehry buildings and quiet, tasteful religious ritual; the other relies on contemptible extraction industries (oil, gas and coal) and inhabits a world of white supremacy and monster truck shows and religious ceremonies in which beefy men in cheap clothes scream incomprehensibly at one another." That divide is, of course, ludicous; for Frank, the real issue is class. But these days, "liberal" has become synonymous with being a college-educated, latte-sipping, urban caucasian, and therefore liberalism is now characterized by pro-business economics and support of gay and women's rights, i.e., fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. And part of that social liberalism is, apparently, the fascistic nanny-statism that Seattle is now seeing.

If there's one bit of hope in all this, it's that Stephanie Coontz's book makes clear that eventually the tide will switch, the overreach will be reduced, only to have the whole process repeat. Still, in the interim, it looks like us blue-staters who value personal liberties will have to suffer the excesses of a nanny state run in our name. The irony: we Seattle liberals could use some libertarian right-wingers at the local level to protect us from our side's excesses even as we decry their excesses at the national level. And how bad are these local excesses? According to Dawdy's second nanny-state article from the Jan. 25th issue, county health is threatening the Downtown Emergency Service Center, a homeless shelter, with $100-a-day fines for not preventing the homeless from smoking indoors.

So, at least we’ve got Dawdy and the Weekly on our side. The Stranger, in contrast, was a heavy supporter of smoking bans; only after the November election and the subsequent realization that they were now mainstream politically did the wannabe-hipster Stranger begin backpedaling, with a moronic article on new “speakeasys” by Brendan Kiley (“Secret Knocks and Passwords,” Dec. 1, 2005). Leave it to The Stranger to cop a mea culpa while maintaining a hipper-than-thou attitude. Maybe when all the smokers are finally relegated to the back alleys we’ll run into Dan “guys-who-smoke-are-icky” Savage fucking his boyfriend, er, husband; funny how having your rights assaulted is a great equalizer, isn’t it?


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