Where I work, they all think I’m a liberal like them, but not because of anything I’ve said or done. Rather, they think so because of what I haven’t said or done. Namely, I haven’t said: “I’m not a liberal.” In not saying this, I have enabled their illusions to survive.
In the borough of Manhattan, where I live, the default position is liberal. Manhattan voted 79 percent for Al Gore and 15 for George Bush in 2000. These are similar numbers to Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district in San Francisco, and they haven’t changed much since September 11. A poll taken a few weeks ago, for example, showed New York State numbers for a prospective Bush/Hillary Clinton race in 2004. Amazingly, Bush topped Clinton state-wide, 48 to 45. But Clinton took Manhattan, 64 to 29.
It never occurs to Manhattanites how conformist they are, and how embarrassing it is that a great city thinks alike in such overwhelming numbers. What they also don’t realize is that their vaunted open-mindedness is a total sham, at least in the matter of politics. They assume you are a liberal unless you tell them differently. For them, this is the same as assuming you are a good person. They think the best of you, in other words, until instructed otherwise.
My reluctance to tell my peers that I am, in fact, a very bad person has to do with several factors. First and foremost, I am at work, and I don’t seek or appreciate the intrusion of global politics into my job — there is enough of the office variety as it is. I see no reason why the most divisive issues of the day need to be debated in an environment where people are ostensibly being compensated to think about other things. Given the political affinities of my colleagues, I also recognize the wisdom of silence. It might be a bit of a stretch to think that being conservative in an office full of liberals could get you fired, but given the state of the economy in New York, one hesitates to find out.
Fortunately, my current position requires little forbearance on my part. People are very polite and professional, and there are no fire-breathers. Politics is in the background and one finds it easy to agree with general sentiments — anger at corporate scandals, anxiety about terrorism, and the like. And I don’t have the energy to get into debates when the few occasions have presented themselves, because there is too much real work to do. This is one of the blessings of my current work situation: people are usually too damn busy to debate Trent Lott, taxes, or hitting Saddam.
Cut back a few years, though, and you have a different story. I worked for a small, struggling technology company at the very apex of the dot-com bubble, and for two years of the meltdown. The company exhibited many of the classic traits of dot-coms — a work environment as casual as a college dorm, a murky business plan, and a complete free for all in terms of personal behavior. I shared an office with two vociferous liberals, who discussed the news at length with one another each day. This was spring 2000, so the Bush-Gore race was on the horizon.
In this environment, with all pretense of restraint thrown to the winds, I was eager to respond to their puerile political fantasies. But I had a serious handicap: the company had hired me as a contractor, not as a full-time employee, and was in effect auditioning me. I needed the job and saw nothing but trouble in mixing it up with these two. So I held my tongue, and hated myself for doing so. Imagine censoring yourself for something as temporary as a job. But my rent and bills were still due at the same time every month. It took discipline to listen to them in silence, day after day.
WHEN THE COMPANY DECIDED to make me permanent, I knew that my relationship with my office mates would change. Like most liberals in Manhattan, they assumed that anyone of any decency was a liberal. It never occurred to them that my silence was motivated not by acquiescence but contempt, and a personal calculus.
They were stunned when they got the news. The first, who was my immediate supervisor, said, “I just thought everyone in New York was liberal,” stressing “New York” as if to say, You’ve got the whole country to live with people like you, why did you have to come here?
He lamented my “premature” adoption of conservatism more than the conservatism itself — I was too young to think this way, in other words. This spoke volumes about his political convictions. Like many of his ilk, he was engaged in liberalism not out of any deep conviction but for the sense of moral superiority it provided him. He obliquely hinted that at some future point, he, too, would go down my road, but for now he was holding tenaciously to his “ideals.” Not very tenaciously, really — in the subsequent time that we worked together, I don’t recall a debate of ours that he won. He seemed exercised mostly by how uncouth it was to express views like mine in public.
His colleague’s response to the news was even more memorable: “But you worked for NPR!” This was wonderful on so many levels — an admission that yes, NPR was liberal; the amazement that one who had been involved with NPR could deviate from the faith; and the sly connotation that NPR usually did a better job of conservative profiling so that people like me didn’t make it through the hiring process.
For the next two years, the three of us worked together side by side and managed to get along fine. But it was a bit exhausting knowing on my way to work that in addition to my other responsibilities, I was charged with defending the Republican agenda.
It’s much better where I am now. The idea of having heated political debates with my coworkers seems very unlikely. I am grateful for that, as my concept of conservatism includes the idea of freedom from politics where possible.
BUT OF COURSE ONE CAN only avoid political discussion for so long, even in my environment. Slowly but surely, my politics are dribbling out.
Recently, I was out of the office with a coworker and stopped to pick up a New York Sun.
“You’ve already read the Times today?” she asked.
“I don’t read the Times,” I answered.
“How do you get your news, then?”
“You’re joking, right?”
Paul Beston is a writer in Manhattan.