Where Liberals come from

By Lawrence Henry
web posted August 30, 1999

On an entirely typical day in Boston, an entirely typical thing happened to me - typically, while driving on a Boston street.

I was driving in the left-turn lane of a major intersection when the left turn arrow turned from green to yellow. I slowed and stopped as the arrow turned red, but not before checking my rear view mirror for the ubiquitous Boston tailgater. He was there, and, as I stopped carefully and gradually, making sure he didn't rear-end me, I could see him, in my mirror, waving his arms and raving in rage.

Now, in making my gradual stop, I had slid halfway across the pedestrian walkway. And there, I was promptly cursed out by a macrame-and-granola socialist from Cambridge on his bicycle for intruding on his rightful space.

This encounter, I repeat, is entirely typical of Boston - and of Massachusetts as a whole, a state and a city where I've lived for nearly 10 years. In this, possibly the most conspicuously liberal state and city in the country, here, in caring-and-sharing Massachusetts, socially concerned Boston, day-to-day rudeness reaches over-the-top proportions, especially on the roads. It is, take my word for it, much worse than New York City (I've lived there, too). And I think I know why.

It's because liberals come from here. It's because of history. It's because we've got a corrupt single-party fiefdom in power, and everyone knows it. And the roads serve to remind everyone, every day, of the reality of that single-party power: The fix is in.

Look at the roads, first, as kind of an objective correlative of the exercise of power. They're terrible - badly marked, badly built, bumpy, torn to pieces, with lane changes that don't make sense, dangerous merges and intersections, and outdated traffic management devices (like traffic circles). Plus, they're narrow, old, and inadequate. And there's no place to park.

The Big Dig itself, endlessly over deadline and over budget, memorializes the political pull of Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill. But Tip wasn't alone. Every new road project has its loopy exit ramps, monuments to the backroom grift of some pol who had cut himself into an interest nearby. And road projects themselves memorialize the century-old Massachusetts notion that government is supposed to "create jobs" - usually for politically interested unions.

When the locals drive on those roads, they display complete contempt for them, and for the law, and for each other. They know every senseless turn and twist of those symbolic roads, and they deal with them with what one friend of mine calls "senseless, mindless aggression." Visitors from civilized states like North Carolina or Minnesota simply can't believe it.

Now for history. About a century and a half ago, the Irish started to immigrate to America, conspicuously, to Boston and New York. (That they stayed there, as opposed to moving to more prosperous territory like the Swedes and the Germans, makes another story altogether.) From the beginning, the Brahmins on Beacon Hill held the Irish in contempt. The "No Irish Need Apply" sign has passed into legend, along with the exploits of crooks like Mayor Michael Curley, as the Irish pursued their inevitable, demographic takeover over the Massachusetts political arena.

In that takeover, the Irish practiced the politics they already knew best: as a rude, backstabbing tribal brawl. But a funny thing happens to people who take over power. They take on the attitudes of the people they defeat. ("Meet the new boss - the same as the old boss," as Peter Townshend wrote.) So the Irish tribe has taken over political power, and taken on, at the same time, the old Brahmin disdain. There aren't very many real Brahmins left, particularly not in politics. Instead, we have arriviste Brahmins, like the Clintons and the Kennedys. In Boston, the real Brahmins run the mutual funds -- about the only things in town that still work.

The contempt continues, and I see it as the basis of contemporary liberalism. After all, what is a liberal? Someone who thinks himself better than other people, and entitled to tell others what to do while taking care of them - a classic Brahmin attitude. It started with the British in Colonial times. (And, lest you think I'm being unduly harsh on the Irish, the British confronted the same sort of hair-trigger obstinacy among colonials that government officials find in the populace today.) It devolved to the Cabots and the Lodges and rest of the Beacon Hill bunch. Paradoxically, those in paternalistic power positions get their votes from precisely those people they snub while they hand out money to them. On the other side, the recipients of government largesse continue to take it, but they despise the people who hand it out.

This double-sided disrespect shows most clearly in public institutions - like the awful Boston roads and the savage behavior of the people using them.

On the national stage, various institutions occupy the positions of Boston's maddening streets: Social Security, health care, the armed forces, the IRS, Congress, the courts, the Presidency. Our citizens increasingly confront those national institutions with the egotistical rudeness of a Boston driver. Why shouldn't they? Because it's wrong? You can't tell people who feel powerless that it's wrong to act angry. You can't tell people who believe that the fix is in that "They all do it" isn't a valid or mature political philosophy.

As George Higgins wrote in "Style vs. Substance," a book that examined the career of Boston Mayor Kevin White, "You can't deal with people like that."

But you sure can create them. That's the Massachusetts model: rule for the unruly.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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