For reasons I’ll explain shortly, I was kvelling to a friend about how wonderful Marin County is. I then wrapped up by saying the Marin is an outlier, unlike the rest of America. The moment the words were out of my mouth, it occurred to me that I’m probably wrong. While Marin is an outlier economically, being one of the richest counties in America, the values I’m about to describe are American and it’s the large urban areas, the ones that fill the headlines, that are American outliers.
To begin at the beginning….
My son had a school project that required him to ask people to fill out a little survey. Having exhausted the neighborhood without receiving a sufficient number of responses (most people are out of town for ski week, which is a wealthy community’s luxury vacation), he got permission at the local mall to set up a table.
I can only say that people were lovely. Those that couldn’t, or didn’t want to, participate, were polite. And those who did participate were delightful. One parent, having taken the survey, returned home and immediately came back with seven children (her own and friends’ children) to help out. I knew several of the people who came by, as well as some of the children whom I’d watched grow up over the years. My overall sense was of a happy, healthy, highly functional little community.
Based upon my perception that I live in a very good community, I later remarked to my friend that we are lucky to live in Marin. I added that it would have been impossible to complete this project in “other communities.” My examples of “other communities” were Oakland and San Francisco — both highly urbanized areas. My friend, however, who lives in one of Oregon’s bigger cities, remarked that, as long as you didn’t wander into one of the yuckier neighborhoods in her city, you could have done the same project in there too.
It was her remark that got me thinking about a little-mentioned American ethos — friendliness. Or perhaps you could call it generosity of spirit.
As you all have gathered, I’ve traveled fairly extensively throughout Western Europe, parts of Central Europe, the Mediterranean, and some parts of Latin America. I’ve sampled the Far East (my Japan trip) and spent meaningful amounts of time in Israel. In every place in which I’ve traveled, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting nice people. (Okay, not in Tunisia, but that was a few months into the Arab Spring, and the Tunisians were clearly a people on edge.)
Despite invariably having met pleasant individuals, I’ve never been a county, other than my own, that offers friendliness as a national hallmark. In my travels abroad, I’m pleasantly surprised when I meet nice, friendly people. At home, I’m equally surprised when I’m met with unfriendliness.
Part of this, of course, is the urban versus suburban or rural divide. As a tourist, one tends to go to the capital cities (London, Rome, New York, Prague, etc.) and the nature of cities is that they are less friendly than smaller communities. That is, unless you go to cities such as Dallas, Houston, or other Southern cities that still take pride in their manners.
Even cities that suck up a lot of headline space with violence horror stories tend to confine that icky behavior to specific neighborhoods. I know that Chicago is right up there amongst America’s murder capitals, but when I was in downtown Chicago on a business trip a few years ago, people couldn’t have been nicer. The same holds true for other major American cities, provided that one is able to overlook regional eccentricities. For example, people in Boston were rigid, but friendly; people in New York, rude but friendly; and people in L.A. peculiar, but friendly.
We Americans are fully aware of how nice we are. Or, rather, we’re aware that, barring certain urban environments (which are usually subsets of a larger, nicer urban area), we are nice, helpful, friendly people. That’s why mass murders in suburbs upset us so much. It’s not, as the race-mongers would have us believe, that we only care when white kids die. It’s that we’re terribly aware that urban toxins are polluting our communities. These toxins may not be factory smoke or ground-water pollution, but they are every bit as vile and dangerous.
So is Marin County an outlier because it’s nice? No. It’s an outlier because it’s affluent, but it’s niceness is quintessentially American. That’s something worth remembering when we see headlines about shootings in Vegas or Chicago or Detroit. Although those cities are strongly identified with America, they are behavioral outliers. We’re nice more often than not. (And no, I haven’t found a study to prove this. I’m just basing it on having traveled extensively at home and abroad.)
Oh, one more thing. You know those recently listed, incredibly miserable American cities? Here’s a little chart identify something they all have in common:
You don’t need to be a statistical genius to realize that there’s a strong correlation between Democrat politics (and many of these cities have been Democrat strongholds for decades) and unhappiness. I’m not going to make the effort now, but I’m willing to bet that one could find an equally strong correlation between crime-ridden, or unfriendly, cities and Democrat politics.
Honestly, you’d think that Republicans would figure out a campaign along the lines of “You’ve been miserable Democrats for decades. Try being a happy Republican.”