By Shounak Bagchi
Sustainable Investment Consultant and Freelance Writer
Often, in hopes of escaping to some sense of a liberal utopia, I find myself watching old episodes of West Wing, the Aaron Sorkin American serial political drama depicting the fictional workings of a progressive political administration.
In one quintessential Sorkin scene, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman mansplains to his assistant, Donna Moss, “There’s a hockey coach who’s got a player who’s squandering his potential. Coach says, “Are you ignorant or just apathetic?” Player responds, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
Last year, Sorkin and certain cast members gathered at Austin’s SXSW to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the hit show’s series finale. When asked about the bevy of programming aimed at blue-state patrons, Sorkin expressed concern.
The writer of The Social Network and A Few Good Men worried that in today’s climate, the endless amount of time one can spend in a kale-kombucha enclave of a liberal echo chamber could lead to progressives developing a dangerous habit of signaling an embodiment of liberal ideals (i.e. diversity, tolerance, and acceptance), while failing to actually espouse these values in real life.
For those looking for an example of Sorkin’s nightmare, one should look no further than Seattle, because the passive-aggressive drizzly older brother of Portland is certainly the chicken tikka masala of liberalism — a diluted, washed down monolithically banal region devoid of any cultural nuance.
Initially, I believed my six-month stint in Seattle, a time filled with faddish optics of multi-culturalism and a large douse of the nativist cold shoulder, was a unicorn of an experience. Upon further investigation, it’s apparent that these two characteristics are as ingrained into 206 culture as a Starbucks corner shop, Green Lake regaling, and Pike Place’s fish throwing.
At first blush, I realized Seattle practices are what one can call ‘diversity at a distance.’ During my first week, I attended a Bloomberg conference on sustainability and inclusion, where one of the city planners boasted that in one district, there are 58 languages spoken. When asked to reveal what those languages were and how often those groups interacted, the civil servant’s face turned paler than it already was (Spoiler Alert: everyone on the diversity and inclusion panel was white).
More troubling, when Gov. Jay Inslee came up to speak, he doled out several statistics without mentioning any interaction of minority groups, their unique struggles, or contributions to his state’s largest city.
This poor lady’s and governor’s dearth of understanding of diversity perfectly encapsulates the city’s outlook on the meaning of a melting pot, where 69 percent of the population, who are Caucasian, cite ethnic-focused statistics, then prop up these individuals, who they rarely interact with, as an anthropological novelty or a diversity economic case study justifying their international gravitas and global awareness. In short, Bill Gates’ fellow Pacific Northwesterners enjoy discussing issues affecting communities of color, rather than discussing issues with communities of color.
In the masochistic endeavor of trying to engage with locals, I signed up for three or four “Meet Up” events.
Given the “shocking” election results, voter turnout was a common topic. In our discussions, I denounced the idea that simply making Election Day a national holiday would be the silver bullet to clear liberal electoral domination (because when you’re poor, over worked, and never see your family, why would one bother to wait in line for a candidate who pays lip service to your problems).
I articulated (in my humble opinion) that to increase turnout, progressives must develop a sound platform, expand resources towards voter registration, make sure the liberal base turns out during midterms, and that we try to increase voting locations and timeframes.
Each time, I was lambasted as not caring for the poor, giving into conservative principles, and creating a pipe dream. At one point, others joined to denounce me and “corporate” views. (Side note: I attended Berkeley and my idea of expanding voting locations comes from India, where they have one poll for every 1.2km).
Most shocking, is that this moment of liberal hysteria was the one time I had any spontaneous interaction from Space Needle bedfellows. Before this article, you might have heard the rumor that Seattle residents are known for being rudely cold. It’s true.
The term that often describes this reclusiveness is the Seattle Freeze—a concept that describes the cold, standoffish, flaky, and passive-aggressive demeanor of 206 residents.
The oldest reference about the Seattle Freeze dates back from a piece from 1946 in the Seattle Daily Times, which spoke of the lukewarm reception newcomers receive:
“It was revealed what we had indeed suspected – that newcomers do not always find us altogether perfect; that we sometimes are neglectful of the stranger in our midst; that we seem unduly preoccupied with our own local concerns.”
It might make sense that when residents boast about their city, they bring up their beloved Seahawks and Sounders, the semi birthplace of Rock n’ Roll, the proximity to lush to the islands of San Juan and Vashon Island, their craft beers (#overrated), and their summers (#overhyped). Never once would you hear about the magnificence or personal brilliance of the character of Seattle residents.
And that’s why Seattle is the Ted Cruz of metropolises. Because whatever geographical amenities, intellectual capital, and financial firepower an area may have, the greatness of a city lies in the beauty, eclectic aura, and charisma of its people.
Seattle patrons lack the elegance of a Parisian, the worldliness of a Londonite, the hospitality of an Athenian, the entrepreneurial spirit of a San Franciscan, the weirdness of the Austinian, the vibrancy of a New Orleans resident, the grit of Detroit native, the honesty of a Chicagoan, and the realness of a New Yorker.
As hordes of newcomers arrive to Jeff Bezos’ backyard, the questions remain: is Seattle indifferent or apathetic to these facts? Can their citizens quickly revise their approach to liberalism before the lie catches up? Or are they okay with being the Nickelback of large towns?
The sad reality is patrons of the 206 simply don’t know and don’t care.