Photojournalist W. Eugene Smith in Seattle, 1976. When I asked Gene whether skyrocketing costs of equipment and supplies might gentrify photography into a medium only the rich could afford, thereby purging it of its humanitarian vision, a few of Seattle's vindictively intolerant Ansel Adams disciples shouted both of us down, denouncing us for our mutual recognition that art and politics are inseparable. (The negatives from which this hitherto unpublished image is made miraculously survived the 1983 fire and were dug out of the rubble the following year.) M2 Leica, 35mm f/2 Summicron, Tri-X at 800 in D-76, exposure unrecorded. Photograph by Loren Bliss copyright 2013.
SOCIALIST KSHAMA SAWANT'S stunning victory in a Seattle city council election is forcing me to reconsider my longstanding hatred of what was undoubtedly the most xenophobic and politically hypocritical town in the United States.
Seattle's xenophobia, specifically its legendary hostility to people not born locally, was so venomous it has given birth to at least three web sites, I Hate Seattle, Seattle Shmeng and the original, Seattle Sucks, which is seemingly no longer available on-line. The townspeople's hypocrisy, even more glaring, was measured by the huge gap between their haughty claims to progressive politics and environmental enlightenment versus the ugly reality of their malice toward lower-income people – particularly as demonstrated by their (carefully closeted) bigotry and their relentless opposition to tax reform and adequate mass transit.
The results of Seattle's bogus progressiveness, which because of the way the town dominates the state legislature actually afflict the entire state, include the most regressive state tax structure in the nation and a regional transit system that, as I noted in a comment on the aforelinked article's discussion thread, is nearly a half-century behind those of comparable areas.
One of these areas is metropolitan Portland, Oregon, which has a transit system that is considered a national model of forward-looking effectiveness.
But the fact newly elected Seattle City Councilwoman Sawant is not only a declared Marxian socialist who makes no secret of her radicalism but is an immigrant as well suggests a sociological change in Seattle that may be of unprecedented magnitude. Indeed it suggests Seattle is at last on the brink of evolving into a genuine city, with all the cosmopolitan open-mindedness that gives urban living its great potential.
That said, my loathing of Seattle is too justified by ugly facts, too long-standing and too intense for me to set it aside without a lot of further reflection.
I first wrote of my animosity toward Seattle in a 1984 Village Voice piece, a brief but bitterly truthful summation of the four bottomlessly miserable years I dwelt there, 1972-1976. In terms of unabated loneliness, these were by far the worst years of my life.
The Voice account provoked Seattleites to an unsurprising frenzy of censorship, angry headlines and venomous letters to local editors. In predictable submission to the malignant Scandinavian/Lutheran puritanism that lurked beneath Seattle's seemingly benign surface, the local reprints suppressed my best turns of phrase – especially those describing Seattle from the perspective of a shunned and ostracized outlander. Some of the better passages are thus restored here:
(Seattle is) no place for dedicated urbanites. Indeed, anyone tempted to move there should first read Raymond Gastil's Cultural Regions of the United States, a University of Washington press book which accurately equates the xenophobic quagmires of Puget Sound with the intellectual barrens of Ohio.
There are the wonderfully enlightened, culture-loving middle-class professionals who will call you to your face a “fucking East Coast intellectual” and invite you to “go back where you belong,” with even stronger language, occasionally accompanied by threats of physical violence. And then there's the prevalent ethos of “mellow,” which means any conversation beyond a rudimentary cataloging of new possessions and recent conquests – his new wife, her new man, his new skis, her new boat – is “too heavy, man.”
New York males should be especially wary. Seattle women – they're still called “girls” out in the Evergreen state – won't look at you twice unless you're blond, tall and built like a lumberjack. But that only gets you in the door. You've also got to wow the ladies with body language, man, which means dancing like John Travolta and never forgetting the taboo on conversation. Otherwise you'll spend the night (which ends promptly at 1:45 a.m.) getting sloshed on 3.2 salmon piss while you watch some plad-shirted executive cowboy try to seduce his prom-queen secretary out of her lip-reader jeans.
Like so many others who have encountered the infamous Seattle Freeze, at first I blamed myself. Then I met other outlanders and began to realize we were all despised merely because we had moved there from somewhere else. That I was born in the Borough of Brooklyn and came to Washington state from Manhattan made the locals' hatefulness that much worse. In Seattle, someone whose birth certificate was issued by the City of “Jew York” – a term I first heard during an unpleasant exchange of insults with a self-proclaimed Seattle “poet” in 1972 – is even more reviled than someone from California.
My initial encounter with the region's carefully closeted but nevertheless intense bigotry – in this instance, the same anti-Semitism revealed by the damning of my birthplace as “Jew York,” was in Bellingham rather than Seattle. It was November of 1970 and I had just learned to my horror I was homeless – that an unreliable sub-lessor had abandoned my wonderful Chelsea apartment five months earlier, that it had thus reverted to the landlord and left me without a place to live. Now with only a little money remaining after a summer and fall of chasing the Back-to-the-Land-Movement/agricultural-commune/resurrection-of-the-Goddess story through the rural Pacific Northwest, I had rented a room in a Bellingham boarding house and was desperately looking for work.
Obviously my first choice was the local daily, The Bellingham Herald. Because this was not the South, where my Civil Rights Movement activities had made me persona non grata at every mainstream paper but The Oak Ridger, I assumed that even if I did not find immediate employment, I'd be welcomed as a fellow professional, just as I had been on every Northeastern paper to which I had ever applied. Hence I typed up a resume, then phoned the lover who had managed to save my files and books from the Manhattan apartment debacle and asked her to please send me the recent clippings of my work. When they arrived a few days later, I phoned The Herald's managing editor, a guy named Fowler, and asked if he had any openings for reporters, as in those pre-Watergate days most newspapers did. He said yes, we made an appointment for an interview, and I assumed I would soon be on my way toward earning the exit money that would get me back to the City.
But as soon as Fowler saw where I had worked, he bristled with rejection. “We don't like your kind out here,” he said. “Do yourself a favor and catch the next flight back to New York.”
At the time I dismissed his reaction as that of a small-minded managing editor of a small newspaper in a small town that – despite its reputation as a “hippie Mecca” (a description famously applied by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1970) – obviously remained as small-minded as any Southern Klanville.
Now of course I recognize the Seattle Freeze is misnamed – that with the notable exception of Tacoma, it should include the entire Puget Sound area.
To encounter that same hostility from the newsroom boss of the state's largest-circulation newspaper, as I did in 1973, was particularly shocking; I had repeatedly found the better newspapers – note again my experience at The Oak Ridger – to be sanctuaries of reason even in realms of unabashed prejudice. But the managing editor of The Seattle Times, Henry MacLeod, rejected me with essentially the same message that had been snarled at me by Fowler. MacLeod was perfectly polite, as Seattleites usually are when they're deliberately inflicting psychological injury, but the sentiments were identical. “All your experience is East Coast experience,” MacLeod said, “and that doesn't count out here. We do things differently. You'll be a lot happier if you go back where you came from.”
The we-don't-want-you-here vandalism to which I was subjected so many times in Seattle began in Bellingham too, though there was only one major incident in the two years I resided there. While I never learned the identity of the perpetrator(s), it was already clear to me there were people in the local Counterculture community who vindictively envied my photographic and verbal skills, fervently hated me for my New York origin and were probably infuriated by my classroom performance as an unapologetic intellectual at Western Washington State College as well. Whatever my alleged offense, it prompted some unknown person(s) to break into my rental house, disconnect the oil-burning heater's chimney-pipe, turn the stove up to high, leave my dog Dingo locked inside and nearly murder him with the stove's sooty outpouring of carbon monoxide.
It was New Years Eve, the last day of 1971, a night I remember as improbably clear and invigoratingly cold. I was attending a big party at a local tavern, was photographing the festivities, had connected with a young woman there and under normal circumstances would not have been home until late the next morning. But – fortunately for Dingo – I ran out of film. So about 12:30 a.m., I went back to the house for more. Thus an exigency of photography saved his life. But the house itself, everything in it blackened by soot and reeking of partially combusted petroleum, was rendered unlivable for the entire month of January. Happy 1972.
Dingo was a very protective half Malemute/half German shepherd, about 85 pounds of no-nonsense canine, and obviously the perpetrator(s) knew him well enough to fool him with phony friendship – a dishonest skill Seattlites seem to possess in abundance. Just as obviously, the intent of the crime was to kill Dingo and frighten me into leaving town. But as the Ku Klux Klan learned in East Tennessee, I'm not easily scared into retreat. Instead I contacted my real friends – a locally born Jewish businessman named Les and his Chicago-born fiancée Gabrielle, also a single mother named Billie who shortly afterward moved to California for graduate school and whom I regret to say I later lost track of (as I remember she too was from someplace in the Middle West) – and they willingly granted dog and man the necessary accommodations until I made the house habitable again.
In subsequent years, while I worked, resided and attended school in Seattle, all four of the tires on my automobile were slashed twice, once in 1974 and once in 1976, and the two right-side tires of a Volkswagen belonging to my then-lover, a woman from California, were cut beyond repair in 1975. Scribbled notes stuck under my windshield-wipers in the '74 and '76 incidents made the vandals' intent unmistakable: one said “go back where you came from,” the other said “we don't want you here.”
In 1975 I was assaulted during a post-opening party at which I was one of the honored guests. I was one of three participants in a show at King and King, a Seattle gallery that closed years ago. My presence in the exhibition was a courageous act on the part of the proprietors given that all my photography in those days was social-documentary work – an utterly taboo medium in a town where Ansel Adams is a cult messiah, his Zone System is the cult's biblical or qur'anic equivalent and any use of film to depict the human condition is considered a sacrilegious mixing of politics and art.
However it was not my photos that triggered the assailant's rage. Those he merely scorned, his “why don't you go back where you belong” routine a typical expression of Seattle xenophobia. Now, eavesdropping on my conversation with other guests, he somehow got the utterly mistaken notion I was badmouthing the hostess and tried to ambush me with a wild right hook aimed at the side of my face. He was at least a foot taller than I, built like a runner or a bicycle racer who also lifted weights, a blond, handsome, obviously athletic specimen of Homo Sapiens Seattlus, equally suitable for a Nazi recruiting poster or an advertisement for a trendy health club. If his wrecking-ball fist had landed with its intended force, I have no doubt he would have knocked me down if not out cold.
But in those days my peripheral vision was still good and I saw the punch coming and stepped inside his reach and all he did was knock my glasses off my face and send them flying across the room. I poked a couple of intentionally distracting left jabs upward toward his chin and launched a full-power karate kick at his balls. Yes I intended to hurt him – badly. The viciousness of his sneak attack warranted no less. I assumed the kick would drop him to the floor, where I would kick him again as he screamed and writhed and clutched his ruptured nuts: welcome to the jungle, motherfucker.
Alas the kick foundered in the tsunami of onlookers who washed over both of us and pulled us apart.
One of these onlookers was a pretty woman whose eloquent reaction to my photographic collages – see “Sandwiches for Mind and Spirit” – had aroused my interest both intellectually and physically. But now she turned on me, exactly the sort of treachery I had come to expect from Seattleites of whatever gender. She shrilly denounced me for my attempt at self-defense, yelling something like “you bastard you tried to kick him you fucking New Yorkers always fight dirty,” at which point I sensed I was in danger of becoming the object of a lynching and quickly departed.
As in this incident, Seattle-born women often seemed breathtakingly cruel to me. This was a profound shock because women elsewhere, particularly in the Northeast but even in the South, had generally regarded me as good company. Many Northeastern women – I can say it now at age 73 without seeming boastful – forthrightly acknowledged they were sexually aroused by my intellect and my ability to share its content. There's also the fact I genuinely like women, that I regard women as intrinsically better human beings than men and usually more interesting as well.
But in Seattle, even if the women managed to be somewhat intellectually accomplished, they viewed intellectuality as an exclusively female domain. They dismissed male intellectuals – especially those of us who genuinely relish female companionship – as repulsively effeminate. Thus they retained the mating habits of high-school prom queens, insisting on men with the bodies of professional athletes and jock-strapped minds to match. Most of these women also made no secret of their contempt for what they considered “East-Coast-type” males – smallish, slight of build, with dark eyes, curly dark brown hair, coal-black beard and Manhattan's signature intensity – in other words, men much like myself.
Because Seattleites so often assumed I was Jewish, I soon recognized this almost fanatical aversion to physical features like mine as implicitly anti-Semitic – yet another of the fascist instincts that lurked beneath the allegedly “progressive” facade of Pugetopolis politics.
By the spring of 1974 I was beginning to sing to myself that Bob Dylan line that goes, “I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough,” but then by a strange quirk of fate I was offered the opportunity to became the founding photographer of The Seattle Sun, which would enable me to showcase my camera work as never before. It also put me more or less at the town's (pseudo) bohemian center, which I assumed would open doors both professionally and socially.
But the hatred actually intensified.
One of the unsuccessful contenders for my job was a smugly handsome local boy of about age 20, a typical Ansel Adams disciple named Nick who had no discernible photojournalistic talent and even less verbal skill but had the physique, carriage and blond cowlick of a male model. The local women on the staff didn't give a damn he was professionally incompetent; they merely wanted him around as a boy-toy to pretty up the office. Eventually – over vehement protests of two of The Sun's three outlander women (one of whom was my source inside the struggle) – the local women prevailed. They didn't care it flushed the paper's photographic quality down the toilet. For them, alternative journalism was more about having fun than producing great work. In any case, being from Seattle – or Texas – they wouldn't have recognized or understood quality social documentary photography even if it were handed them as the visual epic entitled The Family of Man. Just like Barbie wants Ken, and just as mindlessly, they wanted Nick no matter what. And when they finally got him – when his mediocre pictures began replacing my work on the cover – I knew The Sun had started to set.
So it was back to singing that Bob Dylan line. It took me another 18 months to get out of Seattle – I still had five quarters of school to complete before I got my bachelor of arts degree from Fairhaven College, and along the way I had acquired some private photography students to whom I felt strongly obligated – but by the fall of 1976 I was gone from Emeraldville. I was never there again save for occasional visits with friends, never more than an overnight stay.
The South, where I spent about two thirds of my boyhood, was despite its xenophobic history infinitely more accepting of me than Seattle ever was. In 1957, obviously a Yankee, I immediately found part-time work on The Knoxville Journal with samples of writing I had done in Michigan for The Grand Rapids Herald and later for The Grand Rapids Press. Though I was the carpet-bagger son of a carpet-bagger mortgage-banker, though I bore the odium of a child of divorce, I was nevertheless during my senior year at Knox County's Holston High School voted “Boy Most Likely to Succeed.”
Seattle was therefore hands down the most viciously hostile place I have ever been. Considering those places include several locales in the the Ku Klux South – one of which is this same Jacksonville that still honors slave-trader, Confederate general and KKK-Founder Nathan Bedford Forest – Seattle's hatefulness was surely without peer anywhere in the United States.
Since then I have continued to criticize Seattle relentlessly, focusing on its political deficiencies as revealed by its opposition to adequate transit and tax reform.
In fairness, I should note that Tacoma and its suburbs, formerly staunchly pro-transit, have now become more anti-transit than Seattle, actually damning public transport as a form of welfare, denouncing transit users as parasites and voting two years in a row to kill the local transit authority by ruinously downsizing its bus service. But I still regard Tacoma as infinitely more cosmopolitan than Seattle. I have lived in Tacoma twice, 1978-1982 and again from late 2004 onward, and never once have Tacomans made me feel unwelcome.
Indeed three of my closest longtime friends are Tacomans, Mary whom I met at Western in 1971; Jim whom I met immediately after I moved to Tacoma in 1978; and another woman, Gretchen, a working artist, whom I met here in 1979. (After I sort of nudged Jim and Mary toward one another, they were wed in 1983. Not only do they remain happily married; they are also, for me, de facto family.) Thus Tacoma has become my home – that is, the closest approximation to home I will ever know in this lifetime after gentrification permanently exiled me from New York City.
But the point here is that now after the election of City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, whose open affiliation with the revolutionary Socialist Alternative Party proves her to be what I consider a real socialist, I have to reconsider my attitude toward Seattle. No matter how repugnant I have found it in the past, Seattle now seems to be transcending its xenophobic bigotry and reaching out to the peoples of the nation and the world by offering a true alternative to capitalism. Perhaps Emeraldville is at last approaching the sociological maturity that will make it a genuine Emerald City. Let us hope – especially for Councilwoman Sawant's sake – this turn of events is not merely another Seattle deception.
My Contributions to Last Week's Dialogues on Other Websites
“Does Hillary's Silence on Iran Show Neocon Pull on Her Presidential Run?” Truthout's Robert Naiman challenges Hillary to declare her true self. Applauding Naiman's astute analysis, I cite the facts revealed by Jeff Sharlet in The Family, which prove Hillary to be not just a closet Republican but a secret collaborator in the JesuNazi effort to make the United States a Christian theocracy.
“We Need More Than Words” Thom Hartmann discusses how a recent speech by President Obama “cut right to the core of some of the biggest issues in our nation, but we need more than words to fix this broken system.” I reply the only sure lesson of the past six years is that any promise uttered or implied by Obama the Orator is sure to be a Big Lie – that to imagine he will not again always serve the One Percent by shape-shifting into Barack the Betrayer is to prove one's self a fool. The result is a notably civilized discussion on one of the Internet's best news blogs.
LB/8 December 2013