Circular behavior

The tragic, unintended consequences of Seattle's best intentions.
Crosscut archive image.
The tragic, unintended consequences of Seattle's best intentions.

Earlier this year, the libertarian magazine Reason picked Seattle as the second-biggest "nanny" city in America, a place eager to control what and where you smoke, drink, and eat and whom you have sex with. Citizens and politicians have crusaded against nightclubs, prostitution, smoking, trans fats, fast food, bottled water, and plastic grocery bags. Officials have tried to shut down strip clubs, crack down on noisy music venues, and have installed surveillance cameras in city parks. True to its Scando-Asian roots, Seattle has strong impulses to micromanage. Places like Las Vegas are for sinful vacations. Seattle is a place for being on your best behavior — like a secular church — even if your mind wanders during the sermons.

Nannyism is only part of the picture here. Much of what we do is morally charged, these days powered by the recycled, politically correct poop of pygmy goats.

In the name of saving the planet, a wide range of policies have been pursued with a moral component: Walking is not only a healthful activity, it "builds community" and fights the scourge of obesity. Planting a tree isn't simply a pleasure; it reduces our carbon footprint and cleans the air. Riding the bus isn't a convenience; it's a statement about whether or not you love the planet.

In our quest to shape our city into an ultra-politically correct environment, we've built a landscape full of trip wires. Grocery bags, water bottles, bicycles, and grass lawns have become moral and political statements. As such, they are booby-trapped.

Some of those booby traps have been going off in unexpected places. In the Rainier Beach neighborhood, a man known for his gardening and commitment to recycling was killed in July in a dispute triggered by his watering of a traffic circle. Is there anything more seemingly benign than a traffic circle designed for its "calming" effect?

Personally, I think many traffic circles are annoying hazards that worsen visibility and make some intersections less safe for both drivers and pedestrians. But most people seem to like them, and never did I imagine someone would be killed over tending a garden in one. The apparent cause of the assault was the fact that the man had blocked traffic so no one would drive over his watering hose.

No one should die for that, but on the other hand, blocking a public street to water plants is probably not the best idea. On that day, there was a clash of moral priorities and rights that got out of hand: people trying to get somewhere, and a man determined to improve the neighborhood whether others liked it or not.

Another clash occurred on Capitol Hill in July when members of the bicycle activist group Critical Mass blocked a driver from leaving his parking space. Taunted by the cyclists, the driver says he felt threatened and tried to move, knocking down cyclists in the process. The bikers then allegedly threatened the driver, smashed up his car, slashed his tires, and bashed him in the head. The terrorized man later apologized for his part and told The Stranger, "I sympathize with [cyclists'] cause. I ride bikes, too. I'm a liberal hippie Democrat. ... I'm gay, the person with me was a lesbian, and we were attacked by eco-terrorists. It's the most Seattle thing that could have happened."

He's right about that. It wasn't enough to simply turn the guy in to the cops for hitting cyclists — who were illegally blocking him in the first place. They had to mess him up, vigilante-style. But the image of Seattle bike anarchists beating down on a gay guy on Capitol Hill in the name of bike liberation could be used in a poster campaign of Seattle self-righteousness gone wild.

So, are we shaping a city filled with people fueled by moralistic fetishes about bikes, bags, and biodiesel? It seems to me Seattle is like a mini-utopian experiment where "right thinking" is a public virtue. Such communities have downsides, one being that they often turn on themselves. In historian Charles Pierce LeWarne's book on alternative communities in the region, Utopias on Puget Sound 1885-1915, he found that many of them failed because members of the communes turned on each other for not being pure enough. Let's be careful not to confuse building a modern city with forming a P.C. cult.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.