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Killing Us With Kindness:
You Betcha!

[1]3,341 words

To be sure, [Heidegger’s] empty formula of “thoughtful remembrance” can also be filled in with a different attitudinal syndrome, for ex­ample with the anarchist demand for a subversive stance of refusal, which corresponds more to present moods than does blind submission to something superior. But the arbitrariness with which the same thought-figure can be given contemporary actualization remains irritating. 

— Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Here in Stars Hollow, the buses have been free for the past year — thanks, Covid. I suppose this is true in other places. But Stars Hollow also is the sort of place where people say “Thanks” to the bus driver when they get on or off the bus; young and old, every time, whether or not he makes a special stop for you or offers some other extra service. Just for doing his job! And the driver says “You’re welcome” or “Have a nice day” or something else, every time.

This was a nice, sunny day, but — again, thanks, Covid — I was the only passenger, so I got an extra helping of pleasant, “how’s your day” kind of conversation.

It was indeed pleasant, but given the current situation, I could not help but reflect on the fact that he would turn me in to the Stasi without a second thought. Actually, he would have a second thought: another job well done.

Perhaps my mind had strayed to this rather gloomy thought because the previous night I had re-watched the second episode of Better Call Saul. In this episode we are reintroduced to Tuco; from Breaking Bad, we are aware that Tuco is a sociopath, and this is established in the episode by the contrast between his kindly, loving treatment of his elderly grandmother, and his ultra-violent treatment of the men who, mistaking her for their real mark, he discovers are trying to extort money from her (kidnapping, threats of death or dismemberment, finally bargained down by Saul to simply breaking both their legs). [1] [2]

This is Hollywood-standard for establishing such a character, often taken to outlandish heights, as when Hannibal Lecter only eats people who are rude. We are supposed to see an incongruity — aesthetic if not necessarily moral — between such polar deeds, establishing that the character is Not One of Us. [2] [3]

But really, does it? Are We one of Them? As William Burroughs liked to ask, “Wouldn’t you?” if faced with a . . . virus? [3] [4]

Stars Hollow is one of those places I have written about before, where liberals, Leftists, or outright hippies have moved in and remade the town in their image. It’s a nice image, relentlessly so.

Since Covid makes it impossible to meet or meet with people — other than essential service personnel like Mr. Friendly Bus Driver — I’ll concentrate on the building stock I see around town.

I suppose people of all income levels live around here, but the uniformity of their worldview imposes a sameness — a nice sameness — as strict as any building code or coop regulation. The housing stock is either classic Americana, lovingly if eccentrically preserved rather than torn down over the decades to build “more modern” ticky-tacky shitboxes; or else, if new, whether rich or poor, avant-garde or imitation tradition, in the finest of taste. [4] [5]

If Jane Jacobs were reincarnated as a town, she would be Stars Hollow. It’s as if the whole town had received a visit from the This Old House crew. [5] [6]

It’s a town where the housing is so consistently cute that one suspects it’s a stage set for some “ironic” putdown of small-town America before the New Deal. There are a handful — literally, you can count them on one hand — of eyesores, a couple ugly banks or local government annexes built in the 60s, it would appear. But even the cheaper banks or dental offices have a nostalgic, midcentury look to them, as if Rob and Laurie Petrie did their banking here.

It’s a town of San Francisco Victorians painted heliotrope, miniature Frank Lloyd Wright ranches with solar panels instead of leaky flat roofs; where tree houses (there are lots of them, and there are lots of trees) are handmade but from Bauhaus designs. And every one of them, rich or not so rich, has a “Black Lives Matter” sign; frequently, a handmade one, often suggesting a homeschooled child’s project. This despite the only black person I’ve seen being the fussy Creole gentleman employed as the concierge at the local inn; I’m sure the black population is vastly outnumbered by Asians and Native Americans, but there are no signs for them.

Are there no “freaks”? Well, right in the middle of one block is a sort of blockhouse, painted a chipping grey and with the windows boarded over from the inside. Out back you can spot a motorcycle. Anywhere else it would be a notorious biker hangout, but here the owner is likely an older version of that sad sack James from Twin Peaks[6] [7]

The whole town makes David Lynch’s Blue Velvet look like Eraserhead. It’s like The Prisoner’s Village if the inhabitants were draft dodgers, not spies, and their retirement was voluntary. [7] [8]

But enough about the buildings; they are just an objective correlative [9] for the people inside them. The town is what happens when a bunch of white people get together, although perhaps only or especially those of Northern European descent. Scandinavians, for example; the ones who didn’t leave on longboats for some rapin’ and robbin’ were the progenitors of what’s come to be known as Minnesota Nice. The Coen Bros brought it to the big screen, of course, in Fargo. But, there is a dark side to Niceness, which is perhaps why the Coens seem able to mix comedy and violence so well.

Wikipedia’s entry for Minnesota Nice is short but provides this interesting nugget:

Playwright and corporate communications consultant Syl Jones suggested that Minnesota nice is not so much about being “nice” but is more about keeping up appearances, maintaining the social order, and keeping people (including non-natives of the state) in their place. He relates these social norms to the literary work of Danish-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose [10], the fictional Law of Jante [11], and more generally, Scandinavian culture. [8] [12]

[13]

You can buy James O’Meara’s book Green Nazis in Space! here. [14]

In Fargo, the Outsider is also the most phenotypically Scandinavian character, played by Peter Stormare, and is the deadliest sociopath (although it’s a close competition). [9] [15] But he shares the DNA of the unfortunate trooper he disposes of so casually.

Interestingly, Wikipedia cross-references an oddly converse phenom that was unknown to me:

The term Seattle Freeze refers to a widely held belief that it is especially difficult to make new friends in the U.S. city of Seattle, Washington, particularly for transplants from other cities. 

Newcomers to the area have described Seattleites as being standoffish, cold, distant, and distrustful, while in settings such as bars and parties, people from Seattle tend to mainly interact with their particular clique. One author described the aversion to strangers as “people are very polite but not particularly friendly.” 

While some residents dispute the existence of the Seattle Freeze, a 2008 peer-reviewed study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science [16] found that among all 50 states, Washington residents ranked 48th in the personality trait extraversion. In 2014 a similar report by the Seattle CityClub ranked the population 48th out of 50 similarly-sized cities in activities such as “talking with neighbors frequently.” The rapid growth of Amazon and its accompanying influx of largely young, male technology workers may have exacerbated the phenomenon. 

It has been speculated that the origin of the phenomenon could stem from the reserved personalities of the city’s early Nordic and Asian immigrants. Other reasons may include the emotional effects of the climate (such as Seasonal Affective Disorder [17]), or the region’s history of independent-minded pioneers. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Seattle was the first major U.S. city affected and began implementing social distancing measures earlier than other regions. The Seattle Freeze was cited as a factor in the pandemic’s slowdown by late March. [10] [18]

You’ll notice that two diametrically opposed social modes — over-friendliness and standoffishness — are attributed to Nordic roots. When in doubt, blame white people. But then “keeping people at a distance” is just another way of “keeping people in their place.” [11] [19]

That place might be on the other side of the tracks, or waiting six feet apart at the cashier; or standing at the curb until the lights change: back in 1972, Hunter S. Thompson had an encounter with Niceness when covering the Presidential primary in neighboring Wisconsin:

Milwaukee is owned by old Germans who moved out to the suburbs about thirty years ago and hired Polaks to run the city for them. The German presence is very heavy here; the pace is very orderly. Even on totally empty downtown streets, nobody crosses against the Red Light. Yesterday I was grabbed for “jay-walking” outside the hotel. I was standing in a crowd on the corner of Second and Wisconsin — impatient to get across the street to my illegally parked Mustang and zip out to the South Side for a Wallace rally — and after two full minutes of standing on the curb and looking at the empty street I thought “fuck this,” and started to cross. Suddenly a whistle blew and a cop was yelling. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I kept moving, but glanced around me out of a general curiosity to see who was about to get busted — and I realized at once it was me. I was the only violator. . . so I shrugged and moved back to the curb, enduring the stares of about two dozen Responsible, Law-Abiding Citizens who clearly disapproved of my outburst. . . To first break the law, then to be screamed at in public by a trooper; this is not the sort of thing you want to call down on yourself in Milwaukee. There is no room in the good German mind for flashes of personal anarchy. . . [12] [20]

“Flashes of personal anarchy” may just be a typically Gonzo way for Thompson to refer to individual freedom and choice; you know, Bill of Rights stuff. By contrast, the “anarchy” of Seattle’s CHAZ was a very compulsory anarchy — this is how it’s gonna be, got it? — a very no-questions-asked kind of anarchy; not the “personal anarchy” of Max Stirner, Ernst Junger, or even ol’ Massa Tom Jefferson.

On a less exalted, but more personal level, for “jaywalking,” substitute something equally mundane: say, choosing to take one’s chances without a mask.

Rules are good. We’ve seen what happens to societies without them (actually, they aren’t even societies, which are defined by rules). But so is individual liberty; we must find the right balance. Hmm. . . perhaps that sounds too much like olde tyme Fourth of July picnic rhetoric, or even worse, a libertarian screed. Let’s just say that society needs individual centers of action and decision, otherwise the whole thing becomes too rigid and unworkable, both uncreative and unlivable, at least for a European. [13] [21]

Duchesne’s thesis is that the West has always been different, more creative, than other civilizations. The source of this creativity is the “aristocratic egalitarianism” of Indo-European societies. This unique aristocratic egalitarianism was made possible by a political arrangement that provided “relative freedom and autonomy from centralised authority. [14] [22]

And that’s what’s worrisome about living around the people of Stars Hollow. They’re very nice, and they’ve made a very nice community for themselves, but they have very specific ideas about what constitutes Niceness, and they are very concerned about whether you are With the Program or not.

Much of the Current Year is all about Niceness. You will have noticed that the hot spots of the Summer of George were centers of Niceness, and the election, and even going back to the last one, was largely an exercise in enforcing Niceness by rejecting or ejecting that consummate vulgarian Trump. Even his supporters often felt the need to first establish their credentials, with an “I don’t much like the man, but. . .” or “I wish we had a more presentable spokesman.” Given that he accomplished, or even tried to accomplish, barely any part of his “populist” agenda, and was, as he always had been, simply an 80s New York Democrat — remember the kerfluffle over his “New York Values [23]”? — one might conclude that the sole rap against him was Lack of Niceness; and you see how major that is.

That’s the thing about “nice.” Unlike Duchesne’s Indo-European “relative autonomy,” it’s a style, not a content; it’s compatible with any kind of ethos. Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, it was an ethos [24]. But Northern European Niceness is a lovely but empty vessel that can be filled with any sort of content.

And that’s what’s wrong with the Polite Sociopath trope: it’s what philosophers would call a category mistake, confusing container and contents. The polite psychiatrist might well eat your liver, the friendly bus driver might well turn you in to the authorities.

Theodor Adorno was apparently not a nice guy — Lotte Lenya described her fellow “refugee from Nazi terror,” as the media might say, as “a pale, inflamed asshole.” [15] [25] Perhaps for that reason, Adorno was able to see through the vessel of Niceness in his critique of the more fashionable notion of “authenticity”:

Subjectivity, Dasein itself, is sought in the absolute disposal of the individual over himself, without regard to the fact that he is caught up in a determining objectivity. . . . This obligation is totally abstract and thus concretized itself according to the power structure of the moment. [16] [26]

And we all know what “the power structure” of our moment is.

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Notes

[1] [30] For more on Breaking Bad, though not on Tuco, see my “Breaking Badge: Touch of Evil through the Lens of Breaking Bad [31],” reprinted in my forthcoming collection Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis & Other Cinematic Metaphysicians (Manticore, 2021).

[2] [32] Although seeing only an aesthetic, not a moral, difference already places us far down the slippery slope; see Søren Kierkegaard [33].

[3] [34] For example: 

[ind]Junk yields a basic formula of ‘evil’ virus: The Algebra of Need. The face of ‘evil’ is always the face of total need. A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: ‘Wouldn’t you?’ Yes you would. You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need. Because you would be in a state of total sickness, total possession, and not in a position to act in any other way. Dope fiends are sick people who cannot act other than they do. A rabid dog cannot choose but bite. Assuming a self-righteous position is nothing to the purpose unless your purpose be to keep the junk virus in operation. And junk is a big industry.

Naked Lunch: “Introduction: deposition: testimony concerning a sickness.”

[4] [35] Woody Guthrie mocked suburban developments in “Little Boxes”:

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same. 

There’s a green one,
then a pink one,
and a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
and they all look just the same.

Guthrie himself lived for a time in a perfectly nice house [36] rented from Fred Trump, but so loathed his “racist” landlord he wrote (but never recorded) a protest song, “Old Man Trump [37].”

[5] [38] For more reflections on the preservation of housing and neighborhoods, see my “This Old Gay House [39]” reprinted in The Homo & the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics & Popular Culture; 2nd, Embiggened Edition; edited by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017), on sale here [40].

[6] [41] See Trevor Lynch, “Twin Peaks [42].”

[7] [43] See Collin Cleary’s “Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner,” reprinted in his Summoning the Gods: Essays on Paganism in a God-Forsaken World [44], ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2011). 

[8] [45] Wikipedia [46], quoting from Syl Jones, “The unwritten rules that tell Minnesotans how to be nice,” [47] MPR, December 14, 2009.

[9] [48] He also manifests that other Upper Midwestern trait, taciturnity, to an extent so extreme as to drive his unfortunate partner, Steve Buscemi, to hysteria:

Carl Showalter: You ever been to Minneapolis?

Gaear Grimsrud: Nope.

Carl Showalter: Would it. . . kill you to say something?

Gaear Grimsrud: I did.

Carl Showalter: “No.” That’s the first thing you’ve said in the last four hours. That’s, a fountain of conversation there, buddy. That’s a geyser.

It’s interesting to contrast him with some other characters, like Mr. Mohra, the local bartender who tells the cops about their hideout, who closely rival him. As Showalter says to Lundegaard in the first scene, “I’m not gonna sit here and debate.” (Although he does say it twice. “Say something once, Why say it again?” — David Byrne, “Psycho Killer.”)

[10] [49] This may refer to a “slowdown” in the disease, giving the impression the “thanks to being okay with social isolation they beat the plague,” but there has not been a corresponding “slowdown” in the lockdown measures; on the contrary, they have been continued and recently dialed up to full strength (essentially no indoor business at all). I guess everyone seems OK with that.

[11] [50] I’m reminded of Tom Wolfe’s remark that Southerners (like himself) had great fun in Manhattan because they could insult New Yorkers to their faces, in their own eyes, but their targets would never notice.

[12] [51] Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 (San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1973), pp. 125-26.

[13] [52] One of the most effective tactics of the labor movement was “work to rule [53],” pioneered by the anarcho-syndicalists. The insight was that actual work on the job was facilitated by all kinds of subtle accommodations between workers, and to actually work “by the book,” using rules dreamed up by the bosses (or today, “consultants”) would gum things up and bring things to a screeching halt. This is also Saul Alinsky’s Rule 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” The great British anarchist Colin Ward [54] generalized this point to society as a whole: there was no need to “figure out” how an anarchist society could work, it was actually working now, underneath social and governmental rigamarole. As the Situationists graffitied, “Under the pavement, the beach.” As for our subject, Wikipedia says Ward believed that “anarchism in all its guises is an assertion of human dignity and responsibility. It is not a programme for political change but an act of social self-determination” [quoting his Anarchism as a Theory of Organization, Freedom Press, London, 1988, p. 143], and that he “particularly admired the Swiss system of direct democracy and cantons whereby each canton is run by its members who have control on the laws placed upon them, although he disapproved of many the policies this system enacted.” I guess he thought they were too “conservative,” but admired the system nonetheless; how very white of him, unlike our current political class that judges only by results. Also interesting is that John Kenneth Galbraith, when working for the New Deal, wrote a postwar assessment of NS Germany which concluded that, contrary to stereotype and propaganda, the NS state was not monolithic but rather a chaos of competing and adversarial fiefs and interest groups, which led to great inefficiencies. That’s right, the man who became the spokesman for managerial liberalism (their Buckley, only smarter) though NS Germany was too disorganized.

[14] [55] Nelson Rosit, “Essays in Political Culture: A Review of Alexander Jacob’s European Perspectives. [56]

[15] [57] Hannah Arendt described Adorno to Karl Jaspers as “one of the most repulsive human beings I know;” and this was a woman willing to have sex with Heidegger. For these and more samples of Adorno hate, see “Hating Adorno (A Brief Compendium of Nasty Comments) [58].”

[16] [59] Theodore Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 105.