Martin Schneider writes:
Recently Ezra Klein, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Conor Friedersdorf, and Andrew Sullivan have been blogging about New York City's overweening cultural clout and—interesting, this—the tendency of its residents to behave in a smug manner.
I must say, the discussion has been extremely disappointing, and I came away from it feeling frustrated, annoyed, and not a little insulted. I guess it is helpful to find out how much people dislike you for reasons that seem insufficient or inaccurate. Such is the power of cultural envy, or something like cultural envy.
The discussion proceeded along the following lines: Friedersdorf wrote about New York's worrisome centrality in all cultural matters and its pernicious effects on other major cities. Sullivan weighed in, agreeing and complaining about how "irritating" New Yorkers' "narcissism" is. Accepting New Yorkers' smugness as a given, Coates then wrote a fairly empathetic post in which he gamely tried to put that smugness in context. Then Ezra Klein (this was my entry point into the discussion) quoted Coates approvingly and called the behavior of New Yorkers "unseemly."
As a lifelong New Yorker, all I can say is: WTF?
Notice how quickly the discussion devolved: in short order, it went from a look at the unfortunate tendency of New York to "hog" (my word) the major cultural and literary outlets to complaints about the self-obsessed behavior of New Yorkers. Quite literally, the discussion went from "It's too bad that smart people in Phoenix and Houston and Denver don't get a chance to have the literary spotlight" to "Yes; I'd never want to live in New York; the city is overrated and the people are narcissistic" to "Well, yes, but the people there are smug for a reason" to "New Yorkers are unseemly because they won't shut up about how great their city is."
That, my friends, is some serious devolution. In no time, the subject of the relationship of, say, The New Yorker (the magazine) to the literary scene in Denver (this is an interesting subject) was dropped completely in favor of an attack on unnamed New Yorkers for unspecified actions. In three posts focusing on the inability of New Yorkers to shut up about how great New York is, you know how many beastly New Yorkers were quoted or referenced doing this?
The answer, you may be surprised to learn, is zero.
That's right: confronted with presumably countless examples of snobbish New Yorkers disparaging Indianapolis, Tulsa, Atlanta, or Baltimore, Klein, Coates, and Sullivan couldn't be bothered to name a single instance of anybody doing this. In this discussion, that was taken as a given, just as in a book you don't have to cite anyone to establish that Amsterdam is north of Rome. It is a truth just as self-evident, apparently.
This gets all the more astonishing if you contemplate analogous scenarios. Imagine if any of these men had endeavored to make some point about, say, Mexican-Americans in the same manner. Ahh, "Mexican-Americans are fine people and work hard, but they obsess too much about soccer and they have no interest in education," let's say. Do you think any of them would venture such a statement without casting about for some empirical evidence that what they were saying is true? Even a single anecdote? I doubt it. But apparently New Yorkers are not accorded the same courtesy. Such are the pleasures of living in America's cultural capital or whatever.
I'm going to push back on this "self-evident" premise. Before I get to that, I want to make it clear that I do agree that certain New Yorkers, and I'll even include myself in this group, are capable of some insensitivity on the question of the cultural offerings available in New York in comparison to those available in other parts of the country. There's something to that, and saying so is basically fine. What I mainly question here is the use of the words "narcissicism" and "smug." If the exact same discussion had been about New Yorkers' "sense of entitlement," I might not take much issue.
Let's start with Klein's post. Klein basically says that you can't get New Yorkers to shut up about how great New York City is. Let's quote:
About the worst thing that can happen to you in life is to be in a room with two Texans who start trying to tell you about the Alamo. Or about Texas. Or about how Texas was affected by the Alamo. But there's something endearing about it, too. Texans are battling stereotypes that don't tend to favor them. It's like talking up your mom's meatloaf. New Yorkers, by contrast, have what's considered the greatest city in the country and can't stop talking about it. It's like an A-student bragging about his grades, or a rich guy making everybody look at his car. It's unseemly.
Let's talk about New York for a moment. Coates, to his credit, mentions the sheer size of New York City (he says that it's "like ten Detroits") and points out that, statistically speaking, you're going to get a good number of boors in a population that large, no matter what you do. He refers to New York City as "what happens when you slam millions of people who are really different into close proximity." Right on.
So given that, let me ask: Are taxi drivers from Ghana "smug"? Are the Pakistani owners of bodegas a "narcissistic" bunch? Who are we talking about here, exactly? When Sullivan and Klein talk about narcissism and smugness, aren't they really talking about educated New Yorkers who work in publishing and similar fields? Does that make a difference? If they're more "entitled," is it still fair to make such sweeping generalizations about them?
To get a little personal here: Last week I spent a couple of days in South Carolina with extended family; the group was about 20 people, most of whom were raised in South Carolina or Georgia. Smart people; nice people. The entire time I was with them, at no point did I gush about this great museum exhibition or that awesome indie rock gig; it wouldn't occur to me to do that, because it would obviously be rude and seek to put the others present at some sort of disadvantage. Also, it's unclear how interested any of these people would be in a band they had never heard of or an exhibition they would have no opportunity to attend. It's equally unclear to me how many New Yorkers would prattle on about the city in this manner. It seems to me, not so many.
We didn't spend all that much time watching television, but some of us did catch the tail end of VH1's Top 100 Songs of the 1990s and Betty White on Saturday Night Live. Both shows made for good communal watching experiences because we all had the same cultural purchase on the material. Everyone below a certain age was familiar with Nirvana, and we all could enjoy the punchlines involving the potty-mouthed Ms. White. And that was great; there was no potential for anybody to feel left out.
Another story: twice this year I drove out to Cleveland to witness a particularly memorable indie rock project called the Lottery League. (By all means, click and be amazed.) I met a lot of grand people during both trips, and I enjoyed it so much that I'm currently seeking to relocate there for the summer and maybe beyond.
Most Clevelanders are pretty wary of New York, for reasons I find perfectly comprehensible. A microcosm of that view can be found in the relationship between the "have" Yankees and the "have-not" Indians. It's little wonder that Clevelanders (along with pretty much everyone else in the country) are sick and tired of the successes of the Yankees and that they refer to the team as the "evil empire." (Given that, it would be a disappointment of epic proportions if LeBron James ends up abandoning his native Ohio for Madison Square Garden. I really hope he stays in Cleveland.) The Yankees serve as a symbol for everything New York has and other places don't, and people hate New York for that.
It's an accident of history that New York City is what it is, and yes, New Yorkers cherish it, you're damn right we do. We are sometimes unthinking about assuming that another place might have, I don't know, good theater, and we sometimes have to catch ourselves mid-sentence to avoid appearing rude. We do take that sort of thing for granted, yes. One name for that is "living in a place."
It's useless to deny that New York City tends to hog the attention-getting people and events that make a difference in the cultural arena. When you interact with outsiders about it, you can choose to pretend that it isn't true ("Oh, I'm sure Indianapolis has great theater too!"), or you can disparage other places ("God, I could never live in Denver, there probably isn't a decent restaurant in the whole city."), or you can honor the reality in a relatively humble way ("Wellllll, you know New York, we're all a little fussy about theater and the like, but it sure is gorgeous here on this South Carolina beach...."). Does that last one count as smug or narcissistic? I'm genuinely curious.
The fact is, New York City is a very specialized ecosystem, and its natives don't always thrive outside that particular rainforest. This is a well-known phenomenon, isn't it? The New Yorker who can't leave the city, even though part of him hates it? We're all a little misshapen.
So maybe a little compassion for us "smug" New Yorkers. As far as I know, anyone who envies the city is free to drive on over and move in, we're very welcoming that way. And since we're accustomed to teeming multiplicity in all its forms, we're a little slower to describe vast groups of people with a single disparaging adjective without any kind of evidentiary backup. It's kind of a local tradition 'round these parts.
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