A recent issue of the Nation magazine, a journal of the political left, arrived not long ago with an interesting review of a novel. The reviewer panned the book, which is his privilege, but he did it not only by criticizing the writing and the plot, but also the city in which it was set--Washington.
"Washington is a city without color and, for that matter, a city without any reality at all," writes someone named Arnold Klein. "Whenever I meet professional Washingtonians . . . I'm struck with wonder that these phantoms have acquired weight and depth, that that they dare to mix with real people as if they were real themselves."
Klein goes on: "America is no more real to Washington than Washington is to America." The novel, he writes, "offers a glimpse into what Washingtonians think of themselves, and I am glad to report I am right: They don't exist." Of the book, Klein writes, "Clearly it is a plot only a Washingtonian could love, so deeply imbued is it with the fraudulent mystique of the Nation's Cap."
What have we here? This is not George Wallace denouncing pointy-head bureacrats nor even Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan asking to be sent to Washington to "waste" the place. No, this is an intellectual, an English teacher at a New York college who is a president of the Cyril Tourneur Society, an organization of his own creation devoted to Elizabethan drama and named after an obscure dramatist. Elizabethan drama's all right by me, but it ain't exactly bowling.
What we have here, alas, is unanimity. Both the left and the right can agree on one thing -- there is this entity called Washington, populated by strange, somewhat evil people who have almost nothing at all in common with other Americans, who, in fact, spend their days trying to make life miserable for everyone else. It is not clear if the town itself does this (something in the water?) or if the people were born strange and came to Washington because it is the only place they could feel at home.
Either way, the upshot is some extraordinary scapegoating. Frustrations with the government, with taxation and the economy, with foreign policy and farm policy, get personalized -- blame not the people who elected the government, but the people who work for the government. That, I suppose, will solve the problems.
I am tempted to expropriate for Washingtonians the words of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" who tried (without much success) to show that Jews, too, are human -- "when you prick us, do we not bleed?" Don't Washingtonians have the same concerns as other people? Are they not as consumed with lust as people in New York, or as worried about their children as people in Los Angeles? Are they exempt from taxes and from the fear of growing old? Is someone working on a cancer cure at the National Institutes of Health less real than an English teacher in New York? Do people think that toasters work here or that the roofs in Washington do not leak?
All my life I've been on the receiving end of this "real people" nonsense. I used to live in New York and was constantly told that real people didn't live there. (That's you, Klein.) Then I moved to Washington and again I was told that I was not real. But my unreal roof leaks and my unreal car needs a tuneup and the real lady from the real American Express in real Florida keeps calling me up and asking me for real money. Next time she calls me I'll tell her I'm not real.
I suppose logic will make about as much a dent in anti-Washington bias as it has in other prejudices. There is always a need to find a scapegoat, to personalize complex problems -- even to blame someone else for what you yourself have done. After all, the people who run Washington were elected elsewhere by people who then blame the city for the turkeys they themselves have sent here.
But enough is enough. Washington is just a place and Washingtonians are just people. Lots of the time the weather is bad and very often the traffic is awful and we have to watch a television commercial for a men's store, Dash's, that the rest of the country is spared. So do us a favor, America. Get off our backs.