Thursday, April 21, 2011

On Being Nice in New Hampshire Politics

I moved to New Hampshire just as the 2008 Presidential campaign was heating up and I found myself standing on the corner of Route 27 and Route 1, across from The Old Salt, holding an Obama sign.  I thought it might be a way to meet the local inhabitants, a way to  help me learn more about my new state.  Standing next to me was a very trim and proper looking lady in her Talbot's jacket and skirt, every hair in place.

She said, "New Hampshire Republicans are not like Republicans you see on the national news."
"Oh?"  I replied brightly.
"They are Republicans, but they are not assholes."
"Oh," I said, looking at her more closely. This state was home, I realized, to some rather exotic fauna.
Just then a car drove by and a young man in a worn Carhart jacket leaned out of the window and shouted, "Nigger lover!"
"Well," she said, "He's probably not from here.".

One thing about New Hampshire which is different from the more rough and tumble urban places is the amount of energy expended in New Hampshire being Nice.

I noticed this as soon as I moved in to Hampton. Neighbors, even those in the construction trade, my policeman neighbor  typically use no profanity, at least not in the neighborhood, and not just when children were present--they just do not use much profanity, which is one reason I was so shocked to hear the word "Asshole," from that prim and proper Hampton Obama sign holder.

I find myself having to censor my own speech , accustomed as I was to sprinkling my speech with the four letter words so commonly used where I came from. This was not easy, as these had become part of the rhythm of speech and part of the everyday humor. But local New Hampshire speech is different from what you hear on The Wire.

I'm not sure why this is, but it does seem true. At first, I conjectured you have people living in a small town and they see each other every weekend at the Hardware store, the dump, the breakfast place at Depot Square, at Hagans and The Old Salt, at the beach, so they take care not to offend their neighbors.  I

In the suburban metropolitan areas I hail from, you could go weeks without running into anyone you knew. Even your neighbors were not a daily presence. When your neighbor gets up at 4 AM to commute to work and is not back until after dark, and then is off to his kid's soccer games on the weekends, you just don't connect. But here in New Hampshire, you see your neighbors frequently, around town.

At least, that was my hypothesis.

Turns out, Hampton is actualy a big enough small town this is not really true. There are neighborhoods in Hampton I don't pass through for months at a time, and there is no town square, beyond maybe North Beach, where you see people on a regular basis.

So I don't know how to explain the importance of avoiding profanity, of the relentless pleasantness of this town.

It is just a feature of life here, even when the delegates to the state assembly visit a meeting held to listen to their constituents about the current budget wrangling in Concord.

This niceness takes the form of silence when the delegate gets up and makes a speech and he asserts what  the last election meant was Republicans were sent to Concord to cut taxes. 

Members of the audience are expected to sit and to listen politely as ten or fifteen minutes pass while this contention goes unchallenged, and as the Republican delegate says  things like Democrats are tax and spend people, whereas Republicans are responsible about not spending money the state doesn't have.

The unsaid part of his speech--that New Hampshire doesn't have the money only because Republicans choose not to raise the money--goes unchallenged, as the members of the audience sit quietly and listen.

Not having been raised in New Hampshire, I do not have that sort of self control. I could not contain myself and eventually shouted out something like, "In your dreams," when the Republican claimed he knew the voters had sent him to Concord to cut taxes because he had "Counted the votes."

Of course, what I wanted to say was:  You have no idea what that vote said; you only know what you wanted it to mean.  People make good livings trying to study the meaning of voting outcomes and never really know.

But if you can just keep talking and what you say is the only thing said, then even reasonably skeptical people begin to accept what you say, because it is unchallenged. It becomes conventional wisdome, no matter how absurd.

There are lots of examples of this through history: In the South, where I was raised, you heard Negros were happy as slaves. You heard they were happy not being able to eat in restaurants with whites because they felt more at home among their own. You were told they had to use separate bathrooms because they could not be hygenic. You were told if a Negro swam in the community swimming pool, you had to drain that pool because the first thing a Negro did was urinate in the water. You heard all kinds of things and polite people did not stand up and shout down the smiling purveyor of those "truths."

And nothing changed in the South, until people became more concerned about righting wrongs than about being polite.

Maybe New Hampshire can learn something from that experience.

Or maybe it's just a different culture up here.

I don't know. I'm just a dumb Democrat.

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