Mag: New Yorkers

Irwin Stelzer, in defense of New Yorkers

Enough, already! It is time for the commentariat to stop attributing every vulgarity erupting from this administration to the fact that the president, like his now-defenestrated potty-mouthed spokesman, is a New Yorker.

Sure, the president was brought up in Queens and Anthony Scaramucci on Long Island. But that makes them no more New Yorkers in my book than someone raised in Rochester or Schenectady. When I was a teenager, to go to Long Island or Queens to fetch a date was a sign of an inability to find one in Manhattan.

This is not a mere matter of terminology. It is a matter of whether bad behavior can be explained by saying someone is a New Yorker. Start with vulgarity. Sure, those of us born and bred in Manhattan used an occasional bad word, sometimes out of anger, sometimes to provide emphasis to an otherwise limp statement. But never in the presence of grown-ups, or girls. We didn’t rant uncontrollably, spouting our entire vocabulary of curse-words to show-well, to show what I cannot imagine. That wasn’t cool.

And we didn’t whine incessantly about some slight or other. In three-on-three basketball games in the schoolyard-no referee-players called fouls. Not the pathetic kind-“I missed the shot because you pushed my hand.” Do that too often and you would never be invited by two other guys to take on the winners of the previous game. The New Yorker rule was simple: “No blood, no foul.” Compare that to this administration’s standard grievance that its critics are “unfair.” We might consider retaliation if really offended, but not complaining.

Nor did a New Yorker “love” his heroes. We respected them. We emulated them. We rooted for them. And most had large numbers on their backs, so we even expanded our definition of a New Yorker’s turf to include Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium.

Some were gentlemen, like Joe DiMaggio and Joe Lewis. Others weren’t. Leo Durocher comes to mind. They might not have been native New Yorkers, but they were the sort of immigrants we welcomed for their faithfulness to who they were. No excuses. No dissembling. No “I can’t help myself, I’m a New Yorker and therefore not responsible for my behavior.” And we didn’t switch loyalties just because a hero ran into a bad streak. We still don’t. Witness the sellouts at Madison Square Garden despite the performance of today’s real deplorables, the Phil Jackson-created New York Knicks.

Some New Yorkers did have nicknames, although “Mooch” (definition: “to ask for and get things from other people without paying for them or doing anything for them”) was not among them. Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor who knew all about populism before academics made careers out of attempting to define it-he read us kids the comics over the radio when the newspapers were on strike so that we wouldn’t miss any episodes of our fictional heroes-liked being called “The Little Flower.” But most of our politicians preferred a bit of dignified distance from the voters before pandering became the modus operandi. Democrat Herbert Lehman graced the governor’s mansion and the Senate, Jack Javits (he allowed that corruption of Jacob) was a gentleman practitioner of the political arts, Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau retired with reputation intact. One recent governor made it a practice of never being photographed with drink in hand.

This recitation is no nostalgic review of the way we were. It is aimed merely at those who use the label “New Yorker” to explain bad behavior that might be the result of values acquired somewhere along the way, but certainly not by virtue of being New Yorkers as that term is understood by real New Yorkers. Ted Cruz may not like “New York values,” wink, wink, but whatever he meant when charging Trump with possessing those values was off-base for more than one reason. Whining is not a New York value; disloyalty to past supporters is not a New York value; contempt for “losers” is not a New York value; refusing to pay off on bets gone bad is not a New York value.

As Orwell warns us, language can corrupt thought. To allow the label “New Yorker” to excuse bad behavior is a travesty. Writers using that label should remember: We know where you live.

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