Like everybody else I know in New York, the celebrated and normally unflappable pillar of the media Establishment who called me just after the election sounded like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. And he now felt free—eager—to express his contempt for our losing candidate, the haughty, dissembling preppie stiff the Democrats had run against George W. Bush after failing to beat him the first time with another haughty, dissembling preppie stiff. “The wrong Kerry was running,” my friend finally said. “I think Bob Kerrey could’ve won it.” It seemed plausible. Here was a fresh flavor of coulda-shoulda counterfactual regret to taste and savor. And, of course, the unspoken win-win bonus of a victory by the president of the New School: A New Yorker would have become president of the United States. Because, of course, whenever we can make it a New York City story—politics or history or economics or culture—we do.
The aftermath of September 11 was, for a while, all about us. But after saluting the heroism of our martyred cops and firefighters and our collective civic pluck, America had one big depressing, possibly disingenuous question on its mind: Why do they (Muslims) hate us (Americans)? In the aftermath of this election, the same question has a much more parochial focus. By they, we now mean not pious, permanently pissed-off, culturally marginalized anti-Americans from Tangier to Jakarta—since we invaded Iraq, we think we know why they hate us—but pious, permanently pissed-off, culturally marginalized Americans from Charleston to Boise. And by us we now mean us: urbanites, sophisticates, New Yorkers.
For me, the equivalence between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism seems plain. For me, both are unfathomable and scary. But, of course, to Evangelical Christians in South Dakota or Tennessee, my own New York godlessness and casual acceptance of wholesale perversion (homosexuality, pornography) as well as mass murder (abortion) are equally unfathomable and scary.
Which is to say, our great bright-blue metropolis has more in common with red America than we would probably prefer to think. They march in lockstep, close-minded and self-righteous? Us too, dudes.
We can now revel in our minority-taste decadence, like West Berliners during the Cold War.
If New Yorkers were to hold a referendum to choose the city’s core values, “tolerance” and “diversity” would surely be among them. We flatter ourselves that we are a gorgeous mosaic, that we welcome misfits and quirks of all kinds. Yet when it comes to social conservatives and true Republicans (as opposed to Giulianis and Bloombergs), New Yorkers are as intolerant of dissent as any rednecks. Like them, we prefer to live among our own kind, thanks, and don’t really want our ideological orthodoxies challenged. In fact, the reddest of red states are actually less politically homogeneous than New York City. In the five boroughs, 74 percent of the votes went to Kerry, and in Manhattan he got 82 percent. Out in Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, however, Bush got only between 68 percent and 71 percent of the vote. Even in the small towns of Texas, taken together, no more than 71 percent of the electorate voted for their fellow Texan. And of Evangelical and born-again Christians, 77 percent voted for Bush, a smaller majority than Kerry’s among Manhattanites. As a political matter, New York City is tolerant and diverse the way Fox News is fair and balanced.
This is a place where everyone in polite company is obliged to agree about certain issues—for starters, abortion, free speech, gay rights, secularism, and George W. Bush. Is that stifling and cultish, or warm and cozy consensus? All of the above. But for my part, I am already nostalgic for the one recent intellectual opening, a bracing moment of real disagreement that occurred just before and after the invasion of Iraq—our War Spring, if you will. I watched dinner parties digress into shouting matches. I saw a restaurant meal in Tribeca become contentious as a discussion of Iraq turned into a debate of U.S. policy toward Israel. Those were the exhilarating days.
But then the compelling reason for the war in Iraq proved to be a mirage; the dumbfounding mismanagement of the occupation became obvious; and all of us enlightened New Yorkers were required to default to our customary popular-front position and support the dud of a Democratic nominee.
During these last two weeks of bleak muttering, New Yorkers have e-mailed each other little satires ridiculing the majority of our fellow citizens—a map of the U.S. divided between “America” (blue states) and “Dumbfuckistan” (red states), a diatribe titled “Fuck the South,” a chart purporting to show an inverse correlation between a state’s average IQ and its vote for Bush. (Extra added self-serving bonus: Three of the four highest-IQ states were Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.)
Of course, it is backlash against precisely that kind of smug, automatic disdain for the primitive, boring American provinces that sinks the Democrats. Life really is like high school, and the anti-Bush unanimity of the cool kids—the Meryl Streeps, the Tony Kushners, the Bruce Springsteens, the Jon Stewarts—surely reminded a lot of middle- and working-class Americans that they have more in common psychographically with the president than with his antagonists. Our self-regarding sneers alienate even our allies. I know a down-to-earth liberal woman in a small town who worshipped Maureen Dowd—but then, just before the election, heard her on NPR and was shocked by her “rich, snotty, smarty-pants” tone of voice.
This is another thing that hard-core blue-staters and hard-core red-staters have in common: stereotypical views of each other. We think they lead dull lives in bleak places, with Stuffed Crust Pizzas and church and hunting and Extreme Makeover their only solace. They think we are rich, snotty smarty-pantses. We think they are homophobes awaiting the End of Days and the Rapture—and maybe 15 percent of them actually are. They think we are left-wing Jews and homosexuals—and at least 15 percent of us New Yorkers actually are. Like most caricatures, both are essentially true. (By the way, if it is a coincidence that 74 percent of New Yorkers and 74 percent of American Jews and 77 percent of all self-described gays voted for Kerry, it’s an uncanny one.)