By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006
SEATTLE, Jan. 12 -- When the Redskins take the field Saturday against the hometown Seahawks, more than 66,000 Seattle fans are certain to be maniacally noisy -- and immoderately nice.
More than an occasion to see beefy men butting heads, the National Football Conference playoff game is an opportunity to examine the curious mores of an American city that worships at the altar of civic politeness.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels predicts that if a Redskins player is injured, local fans will be concerned. He said, too, that Seattleites would not stoop to obscene jeers about opponents' mothers -- the sort of thing that is a commonplace of professional sports in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
"The level of animus you will hear directed at opposing players is different in Seattle," said Nickels. "Nice is part of our culture."
Indeed. Drivers rarely honk in this town, though traffic is horrible. Jaywalking is viewed as evidence of low moral character. It is not at all remarkable to see pedestrians standing at an intersection in pouring rain in the middle of the night -- with no cars visible in any direction -- waiting dutifully for a "walk" sign.
Goody-two-shoes behavior is endemic and appears to be spreading -- by order of law. A new city ordinance requires lap dancers to keep four feet from patrons. A new no-smoking law requires smokers to move at least 25 feet from the doors, windows or vents of a public building or workplace before lighting up. Starting this month, there's a $50 fine for residents who improperly mix their recyclable garbage. If the state liquor control board approves, a new city ordinance will ban the sale of cheap wine and beer in neighborhoods where people hang out and look slothful.
Extremism in the pursuit of high-minded behavior is a source of civic pride in Seattle. Per capita opera attendance leads the nation. Nine out of 10 women claim to exercise at least once a week. The city claims to have the best-attended arts and lecture series in the country. Seattle is the nation's most literate city, based on a national survey. It has more bookshops, more residents with college degrees and more coffee shops than any other city its size. The city's one great vice -- massive consumption of overpriced caffeine drinks -- keeps people alert so they can read, recycle, go to the gym, scowl at jaywalkers, keep their hands off strippers and repress the urge to honk.
The question is why? What is it about Seattle that makes residents so goody-goody, so willing to pass ordinances that require goody-goodiness in others?
The early history of the city suggests an appetite for sin, not self-improvement. Boozing, prostitution, fisticuffs and lynching gave the city a wicked reputation in the second half of the 19th century.
Badness, though, did not long endure.
"Out on the Oregon Trail, pioneers made a decision that shaped our culture," says Knute Berger, a Seattle-born writer and editor in chief of the Seattle Weekly, an alternative newspaper. "Some went south to California, to the land of milk and honey and gold. Others went north to live here in a dark forest in the rain. Seattle was not settled by a bunch of sensualists."
The settlers who came to dominate politics, culture and business were Scandinavian -- liberal in their politics and stolid in most everything else. They ate lutefisk (dried cod cured in lye) and seldom stooped to irony.
Jonathan Raban, the British writer and social critic who has lived in Seattle for 15 years, says that a chilly Scandinavian undertow continues to tug at the soul of the city.
"Strangers when they first arrive say this is quite a friendly town," Raban said. "They don't realize that the good manners are usually more of a protective barrier than an invitation to intimacy."
To Raban, the city's eagerness to legislate nice behavior suggests what he calls "the deep authoritarianism of the liberal mind." He added: "Liberals like to think they are on the side of liberty, but actually they are on the side of authority."
Mayor Nickels does not see it that way. He says Seattleites obey laws and are civil with one another out of "respect for the community."
Whatever its historical, cultural and political origins, there is widespread agreement among the city's many new residents that civic politeness is as infectious as it is pervasive. Nickels said he believes that recent transplants to the city are even more susceptible to politeness than people who have lived in Seattle their entire life.
Consider how it infected Erik Blachford, who moved to Seattle in the mid-1990s and who until last year was chief executive of Expedia.com, the online travel agency based in the Seattle area.
When Blachford moved six years ago to a house atop Seattle's Queen Anne Hill, he noticed that his downhill neighbor had just planted a large tree and that it obstructed the splendid view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains that could be seen from the first floor of his house.
Blachford complained cautiously to his neighbor that first year but has not mentioned it since -- even though the tree has grown and now obstructs the view from the second floor of his house.
Having grown up in Montreal and lived for several years in New York, Blachford is not by nature a milquetoast and says he can be as hard-charging as any business executive. Still, as a Seattle resident, he says he simply cannot force himself into a full-blown rant.
"It doesn't feel like that is how things work here," he said. "In other places I have lived, this sort of thing gets brought up quicker. But because this is a tree -- and this is such an environmentally sensitive place -- you feel strange asking somebody to cut down a tree to improve your view."
When politeness marries pro sports, the synergy does not spawn winning dynasties. Seattle's three long-standing major pro sports franchises -- the Seahawks, the SuperSonics basketball team and the Mariners baseball team -- have won a total of one championship. (The Sonics beat the Washington Bullets for the National Basketball Association title in 1979.) Joel Connelly, a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and long-suffering sports fan, says that this year he has noticed a definite uptick in "blood lust around the Seahawks." In the end, though, Connelly expects nothing significantly mean-spirited will come of it.
"Poor sportsmanship does not come easily in Seattle," he said. "We have a greater proportion of nice people out here than we deserve."