Friday, April 14, 2006

The Great Overpass Controversy

A few years ago I lived right by the freeway. Around this time, the city and the neighborhood association got it in their heads to put an overpass at the end of my block. This wasn’t going to be any old overpass, either: this was going to be a “gateway into downtown”. Rumors swirled around that they were going to use a Frank Lloyd Wright design, but this proved to be untrue. Instead, the planners had decided on a “Frank Lloyd Wrightesque” plan, which is a different thing entirely. As the built this thing, I hear all sorts of excited predictions being made–the neighborhood would be revitalized, my shabby and forlorn street was on the cusp of becoming an “arts corridor”, people would come from all over to see it. Heady claims for a road over the freeway, to be sure, but the enthusiasm was contagious.

Unfortunately, after all that hype, the overpass turned out to be butt ugly. It’s a bad mix of pastel tiles and flying saucer lights. Sure, there’s a curve in it, but to me a curve alone doesn’t make an overpass sexy. “Look at me! I’m the fanciest overpass for miles around!” it screams, flouncing around in the staid Twin Cities overpass scene like a floozy in a cocktail dress at Wal-Mart, looking for attention. Maybe it’s a convenient way into downtown, but only if you close your eyes as you go over it.

I’m getting away from the point, though. About a week after the overpass’ unveiling, I was talking with a neighbor of mine, an activist guy involved in dozens of community groups, area betterment committees, and peace circles. He was, predictably enough, involved in many of the neighborhood focus groups that had consulted with the city on the overpass project and, all through its construction, he had been one of its biggest boosters. So perhaps I was impolitic when I pointed out the resolute butt ugliness of the overpass. At first, he simply looked shocked that someone would express such an opinion, but as our chat wore on and I refused to moderate my anti-overpass position, he started to get offended. Before he finally stormed off, he gave me what must have been his ultimate insult: “Well, I wouldn’t expect a conservative like you to appreciate the overpass...”

Really. I was a conservative because I didn’t like the overpass. I was momentarily baffled, and then I resolved never to talk to that dude again. Because if I’m a “conservative”, that means that a “conservative” can:

* Never have voted for, or even considered voting for, any Republican candidate for any office ever
* Support, over the years, people such as Howard Dean, Ralph Nader, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Paul Wellstone
* Delight in the idea of raising the income taxes of wealthy people
* Vomit the morning after the re-election of George W. Bush
* Be pro-choice, anti-death penalty, anti-Iraq War, pro-gay marriage, and on and on and on
* Fantasize frequently about moving to Spain or France or Sweden or some other arty European utopia

In other words, I feel that my liberal bona fides are pretty well established. But apparently not to some. This is what drives me crazy about certain elements of the left: this elitist idea that, as the vanguard of enlightenment, a “leftist” must hold the virtuous opinion in all things. I’m willing to guess that the guy liked the overpass not because of its aesthetic qualities, but because it was a community project, an endeavor in which the neighborhood boards he loved came together and made something other than a parking resolution. The overpass wasn’t just an overpass to him, it was a symbol of citizens working together for the greater good. The overpass was, in other words, virtuous and, by refusing to like it, I revealed myself as one who those Rush Limbaughite meanies who hate grassroots democracy, neighborhood involvement, and everything else good and decent in this world. Or maybe he just had really bad taste, I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that one shouldn’t allow one’s political ideals to become their religion. A lot of times on the left, you find people who use their beliefs as a ladder to salvation. Being a good person, for them, has too much to do with having the correct opinions, the most sensitivity, the deepest sense of grievance. From this small-but-vocal minority of liberals, you get the smug self-righteousness that right-wingers exaggerate in order to discredit the rest of us, you get the hairshirt agonizing that too often takes the place of action, and you get the useless outrage at the thousands of sacrileges the world hurls at them daily. None of this does anyone any good, you might notice. Most of the time it’s just the same old dispiriting American selfishness and self-regard dressed up in friendly clothes, or another arrogant way to be ineffective and egotistical.

This is, of course, also an issue among those on the right. My opinion on overpasses aside, I am not a right-winger and so I don’t particularly care when they make themselves look stupid. I actually prefer it when they do. Liberals, however, ought to resist the temptation to reduce their positions–positions which I consider the only viable and ethical strategy for our world today–to a zero-sum battle between virtue and evil.

But this could all be coming out just because I’m still wounded at being called a conservative. Because, let’s face it, that’s a cold fucking thing to tell someone.