On New York Values
by Elizabeth Spiers
I grew up in a small town in Alabama (Wetumpka, pop. 6,528), and lived there until I went to college at Duke in 1995. The area was and is overwhelmingly conservative, not very diverse and most of the people I grew up with would self-identify as evangelical Christians. (My family was Southern Baptist.)
I had a fairly happy childhood and have many fond memories of friends, family and the teachers and mentors who helped me develop into my adult self. We were taught to value family, work hard, be polite.
I went to college in the South, enrolling at the only school I applied to. I had a partial scholarship and a lot of financial aid. I’m still paying off the loans. (Would be nice if they gave me a discount when I go back to talk to students, hint, hint.) By my count, there were fewer than 10 people in my graduating class from Alabama and more than 250 from the New York metro area. Duke was a southern school in geography only, and the students were, for the most part, incredibly well-off. I grew up in a working class community–my dad was a local lineman for Southern Company–and any idea I had before Duke about what truly wealthy people were like was quickly dismantled, for better and for worse, after four years there. On the upside, I had some culture shock going from Alabama to Duke, but none from Duke to New York.
So I’m very familiar with the heartland values that Ted Cruz thinks he’s representing: the far right constituency that’s still futilely fighting against gay marriage, equal pay for equal work for women, family leave, reproductive choice, and voter rights laws that don’t disenfranchise minority populations. Among other things.
Those people do exist and they’re just as real as the New Yorkers Ted Cruz thinks he’s talking about: the New York liberals who are pro-choice and support gay marriage.
RE: the latter, I should know; I am one. I would self-identify as a New York-based, pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage liberal. I’ve lived in New York for 16 years, which is only two years less than I lived in Alabama. We’re raising a child here, and our primary reason for doing so is that we want our kid to grow up in an area where almost no one thinks that people who are not white, not straight, not male, not economically well off, don’t deserve the same rights as people who are. I should note here that this is not everyone in the heartland, or even everyone who’s a conservative. But we all know who he’s talking about.
And certainly there are some bigots and elitist assholes in New York, too. But it’s a lot harder to maintain bigotries in a place where segregating yourself into little silos of people who are exactly like you is nearly impossible. By virtue of living here, you live and work with people who are racially diverse, economically diverse and have a range of gender and sexual identities. In fact, you live on top of them. You’re sandwiched in between them on the subway in the morning. You interact with a few thousand of them every single day.
And somehow we mostly get along. So I don’t worry that if my son turns out to be gay that it will be terrifying for him to come out of the closet, or that he’ll be threatened by the neighbors for having the temerity to be gay in public. I don’t worry that if we have a daughter and she happens to need the services of Planned Parenthood–where I purchased low-cost birth control for a year when I didn’t have health insurance–that she will be harassed by protesters en route to their facilities. I don’t worry that some theologically illiterate person will distort Biblical scripture to justify their own feelings that the poor deserve what they get (and that people on welfare deserve derision instead of help), that God frowns upon inter-racial relationships, that women always belong in the kitchen instead of the workplace, and are only self-actualized as wives and mothers. With the exception of harassment en route to Planned Parenthood (mostly because there are only two clinics in AL and the closest one was two hours away) I saw all of these things happen where I grew up, and I don’t want my son to be exposed to them.
We also live in a safe neighborhood where kids walk to school and pretty much the only people who have concealed carry permits are law enforcement officers. I don’t worry about my kid getting shot either.
But the irony here is that Cruz doesn’t even know his own party well, because it’s changing. Most Americans (in both parties) support gay marriage, so when he sneers at New York for doing so, he’s demonstrating not only his homophobia, but his own political stupidity. I predict that anyone still doing that in another generation is going to be completely unelectable to any major national office, and Cruz will have some regrets.
He may also have some regrets the next time he comes to New York with his hand out and Republican New Yorkers decide they don’t need to fund him. And Donald Trump is right about one thing (god, I hate saying that): nothing is more emblematic of New York values than the way the city pulled together after 9/11, an event that neocons love to cite to buttress their warmongering, and that New Yorkers wish they’d shut up about. After all, the terrorists didn’t target god-fearing people in small town heartland. They targeted liberal New Yorkers. Nothing raises the ire of a fundamentalist terrorist like a bunch of sexually liberated heathens who have the temerity to be successful and influential on the world stage.
All of that said, I’m sure if my son grew up in Alabama there would be some good values he’d pick up, too. I’d like to think that there were things I learned growing up that shaped my character in ways that were positive. But if I have to choose, I’ll take New York values any day over the particular strain of heartland values that Cruz is talking about.