Long Island Bashing: The Last Acceptable Bigotry

It has to be one of the most extraordinary exhibitions of ignorant bigotry ever published in a mainstream newspaper. It appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, Aug. 1, on the front page of the City section and to appreciate just how pathetically bigoted the people quoted in it are, consider the use of the word “they.” Imagine, in the following quotes from the story, “they” were Jews, Italians or African-Americans:

” They are everywhere ….” ” They bring business … but they are not the same ….” ” They are invading ….” ” They behave differently….”They are “people you wouldn’t invite to your home.” They “have no class…. They will probably keep coming…. It is only going to get worse.”

This is the eternal language of ignorant bigotry. It’s the language of the bigots who excluded first the Irish, then the Italians and Jews. It is the language of racists who claim they have nothing against blacks per se, it’s just “how they behave,” you know, “lounging on the street” and other terrible offenses. It is the language of Serbs talking about the “uncivilized” Kosovars they were expelling and murdering. And, alas, it is the language that The Times virtually legitimizes-on the front page of its City section-in a piece about the horrors these insecure social-climbing Hamptons bigots feel at the influx of the last American minority unprotected by political correctness: native non-Hamptons Long Islanders. (I can’t believe those noxious sentiments are shared by the Times writer, but he does little to distance himself from them.)

The implicit message of The Times ‘ sympathetic treatment of the whining querulous status-seekers it quotes mouthing these sentiments is that while just about every other form of social bigotry is considered beyond the pale, beneath contempt, or at least not something to front-page in an empathetic way, prejudice against Long Islanders is O.K. Would The Times in the 60′s have published a sympathetic story about the anguish Southern racists felt about Negroes integrating their neighborhoods? Would The Times publish a sympathetic story about the anguish of suburban Christians distraught about Jews joining their golf clubs?

But, no, when it comes to snotty Manhattan-based Hamptonites afflicted with status hysteria, whose right to unimpeded, unrivaled parasitic name-dropping, social-climbing celebrity-proximity weekends is threatened by … by they , by them, by oh-my-God people who live in other parts of Suffolk County, The Times treats them with respect. Why? It’s just the unappetizing spectacle of one group of hysterical arrivistes screeching about the arrival of a slightly later group of arrivistes !

But the Times piece just confirms a feeling I’ve had for a long time as a native Long Islander (although I was born in Manhattan, I grew up in the dead center of Suffolk County, in Bay Shore) that we, my people, are the one group in America everyone feels a license to feel superior to-that slurs against us are not regarded as the arrant bigotry they would be against any other group.

I once addressed this issue, in The New York Times Magazine , in fact, the way Long Island may be the least respected locale in all America, the way Long Island is the Rodney Dangerfield of islands. I wrote about the way I was “resigned to the fact that every mush-mouthed hayseed in America feels he has the right to say, condescendingly, ‘Oh, you’re from Long Island, you mean, Lawn Guyland’ as if he was establishing a Henry Higgins-like sophistication by comparison.” How I was “resigned to the fact that while people from New Jersey, the second most maligned and unfashionable place to come from in America, at least have native son Bruce Springsteen to transmute their state’s toxic wastelands into a kind of doomed romantic grandeur, those of us from Long Island have … Debbie Gibson and Billy Joel.”

My Times piece (“The Devil in Long Island,” Aug. 22, 1993) was occasioned by the rash of tabloid crimes that seemed to be serially detonating in what had been the almost oppressively placid suburban landscape of my youth-Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, serial killer Joel Rifkin, “love judge” stalker Sol Wachtler, etc.-that had provoked a new level of Long Island bashing in the press, in comedy monologues, in TV movies. Where once Long Island had been caricatured for its boring suburban sterility, its Levittown cookie-cutter low-interest landscape, now it was being disparaged for being too interesting, or interesting in the wrong way. But one way or another, Long Island was always being laughed at and despised.

In the closing paragraphs of the piece, I warned against the new version of anti-Guyland prejudice: “The America that laughs at Long Island … that looks down on Long Island as something alien … may have to think again…. Because when America laughs at Long Island it’s laughing in the face of its own onrushing future.”

And now they’re laughing again. Not merely laughing but sneering, and I think what gets to me about it is that assumption of superiority by the Hamptonite bigots quoted in the recent Times piece, that pretension to Henry Higgins-like sophistication I’d ascribed to “mush mouthed hayseeds” who think they’re scoring big points by mocking native pronunciation as “Lawn Guyland.” Because there’s very little that distinguishes the sneering bigots among the Hamptons snobs quoted in the Times piece, from mush-mouthed hay-seeds mocking the Guyland.

I’m not saying every Manhattanite in the Hamptons is an insecure, status-crazed celebrity leech like the ones quoted in the Times piece. I know lots of people have been going out there for years for the beaches, for the farmstands, the pastoral potato fields (O.K., scratch that, the potato fields have all been replaced by boutique vineyards). I’m sure it’s not true of you, dear reader, or any other Observer readers who, I presume, were as deeply offended as I was by the laughable bigots The Times spotlighted.

I particularly loved the quote from that writer of a name-dropping Hamptons book, a writer who, for all his hauteur about latecomer social climbers in the Hamptons, has made his fortune by exploiting celebrity chic. I particularly loved his ham-handed effort to pose as a wit of Wildean stature by sneering at the latecomers who make the terrible mistake of staying in Westhampton Beach, which he describes as a “tacked-on invention where divorced dentists buy homes for their second wives.” Um, excuse me, sir, could you explain what exactly makes you superior to the divorced dentists who at least spend their lives removing decay rather than exacerbating it? Very little that I can see.

Let’s examine the assumption that underlies their pretension to some higher level of sophistication than the unwashed masses from the unchic area codes, the ones the Hamptonites in The Times are getting their knickers in a twist over. Exactly what does the alleged superior sophistication of Manhattan-based Hamptonites consist of, what is this quality that allows them to look down their noses at those from Nassau and Suffolk who venture into their hallowed Hampton streets?

Basically, it consists of a belief that because they were there to name-drop and gawk and giggle over the presence of celebrities first , they are somehow better than those who come to name-drop and gawk and giggle later. Their idea of sophistication consists of spending tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars to be able to say they live near Gin Lane or near Georgica Pond or that they ran into Steven Spielberg or Martha Stewart at the market. Their sophistication consists, in other words, of demonstrating how empty their own lives are-so empty they squander their resources to leech vicariously, parasitically on the presence of those more talented and famous in the neighborhood they bankrupt themselves to buy into. If it wasn’t about name-dropping, giggling and gawking-about being first in line to name-drop, giggle and gawk over celebs, why did they go to Hamptons, anyway, when there are lots of lovely beaches on Long Island closer to Manhattan? (It’s really their sensibility that’s bankrupt.)

But, in fact, that’s what it is about for the sad cases quoted in The Times . Who are so lacking in self-awareness they didn’t seem to mind demonstrating how pathetically insecure they are about their own self-worth that they can be powerfully threatened by what they perceive as a challenge to their pre-eminence in celebrity leechery. They were there first, they’re the original name-dropping parasites in the Hamptons, and anyone who follows slightly behind them in sucking vicariously off the secondhand glamour of celebrity culture is a latecomer to be disdainfully sneered at as “they.” Ignoring the quite obvious fact that they are “they.” That the Long Islanders they fear are just making more obvious the parasitic ethos the hysterical Hamptonites are in thrall to.

Now that’s sophistication.