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Feeding the Stereotype

By Frank Gruber

My wife is an academic and one advantage of that is that I meet some interesting people -- people who actually know something.

One such person I met through my wife is the linguist, Geoffrey Nunberg, who you may have heard on NPR's program, Fresh Air, or whose columns on language and culture you may have read in the Sunday New York Times' "Week in Review."

Nunberg has a book out, a collection of pieces from Fresh Air and newspapers, called Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times, and he was recently in Hollywood for a reading and book signing at Book Soup.

One of the many linguistic developments Nunberg has reported on is how the meaning of the word "liberal" has evolved from being a word that neutrally described a set of political views or those who hold them (which views themselves were subject to change over time), to a word that identifies, in a negative manner, a particular subset of people who not only hold those views but also allegedly possess certain other characteristics.

"Liberal" has become, for many at least, a "negative brand" connoting people who are Democrats who have a certain ethnicity (white) and certain preferences in what they consume (e.g., expensive coffee drinks, expensive bread, expensive cheese, expensive imported automobiles).

While this use of "liberal" is the invention of right-wingers out to demonize their ideological enemies, and doesn't have much to do with the facts (it turns out Republicans consume most of the nation's imports of brie), to some extent the word has taken on this new meaning in mainstream usage as well.

Nunberg has found, for instance, that while the phrases "middle-class liberals" and "middle-class Democrats" occur with equal frequency in major newspapers, the phrase "working-class liberal" is extremely rare, while "working-class Democrat" is common.

So is, for that matter, "working-class conservative," and while it's easy to say "black conservative," "black liberal" hardly comes trippingly off the tongue.

As one who is a white Democrat, has liberal views, eats LaBrea bread, drinks espresso and drives a French car, I am mightily annoyed that I've been negatively branded by the likes of Limbaugh and O'Reilly.

But I'm even more annoyed when my political soulmates go ahead and do things that play into or even justify the stereotype.

For instance, our own Democratic and very environmentally-minded member of the Assembly, Fran Pavley, has proposed a bill to allow single drivers of Priuses and other hybrid cars to use car pool lanes, and, in Los Angeles, good liberals Mayor Kenneth Hahn and Council Member Eric Garcetti have proposed allowing hybrid owners to park free at parking meters.

Can you imagine any law that could better fit the image of self-righteous, Westside, very comfortable but full of outrage, "liberals," than a law that entitles them to flaunt and benefit from the innate goodness that comes from driving an expensive car that gets -- oh, how wonderful -- 45 miles per gallon?

I won't go into how ridiculous it has been to spend hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars on car pool lanes instead of mass transit, nor how more than anything else free parking encourages driving. Nonetheless, it is doubly ridiculous to crowd those lanes, which should be used by buses and shuttles, with single passenger cars, or allow wealthy owners of hybrids, high up on the consumption chain, to park on L.A. streets for free.

According to an article last week in the L.A. Times, Pavley's bill has passed the Assembly, as well as a panel in the State Senate. Both the Governor and his frequent nemesis, Treasure Phil Angelides, support it. The only obstacles to its passage in the Senate are suddenly vocal and outraged transit experts and federal regulations that limit federal funding for carpool lanes to those that are limited to -- carpools.

But under lobbying from Toyota and other manufacturers, Congress is considering abolishing that.

To deal with the charge that allowing hybrids in carpool lanes will congest them and make them even more useless than usual, Pavley's bill limits the privilege to drive solo in carpool lanes to the first 75,000 hybrids on the road.

Imagine that. Isn't that convenient. Or even more outrageous? Because let's get this straight, to stimulate sales of cars that already have waiting lists, Pavley wants to give only the first 75,000 selfless environmentalists the special sticker that will allow them to use the carpool lanes.

What about the poor slobs who can't afford to buy one this year?

And for that matter, what about urbanites who drive less? My old Peugeot may only get sixteen miles to the gallon, but by living near my job in a congested (yet convenient) city, I only drive 3,000 miles a year. I use half as much gas as one of Pavley's Thousand Oaks constituents who drives 18,000 miles a year in a Prius.

When do I get my sticker?

* * *

One would think that during the summer the pace of activity in City Hall might slow down, but Tuesday night's City Council agenda is chockfull of important items, too many to go into in depth.

Last year the council passed an ordinance on the average every nine days; this year they must be out to pass one a week.

Tuesday night, in no particular order, the council will probably: (i) down-zone Montana Avenue and lower the development review threshold there to 5,000 square feet, thus belying any pretense of favoring smart growth or simplifying the approvals process; (ii) approve on second reading the new multi-family ordinance that adds more mandatory provisions to most of the multi-family districts in the city; and (iii) alter the City's law relating to remodels that will encourage homeowners to demolish existing structures rather than incorporate them in updated and enlarged houses.

All in a night's work for more "progressives" who often confuse the public interest with that of their own kind.

There is one item on the agenda that the council will likely do that makes perfect sense, and that is to take the necessary legal steps to enable a state agency, the California Statewide Communities Development Authority, to issue bonds to help finance Pacific Court, the Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM) affordable apartment development at Main and Pacific. (Staff Report)

Contrary to various rumors and inflammatory rhetoric floating around town the past week, the City will not issue these bonds and neither the City nor its residents will be liable for their repayment. Repayment will be the sole responsibility of Pacific Court, and CCSM will do so with the proceeds from private equity financing and the rents it collects from tenants.

All of this in accordance with state and federal programs to finance affordable housing, a goal which Santa Monica voters have consistently supported.

The kind of goal that, yes, good liberals make sure is part of the political agenda.

And I'm proud to be one.


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