Balint: We are a better people when we reject simple cliches


As the nation begins to accept that the rules of engagement for the 2016 Presidential Race have changed, Ted Cruz demonstrates yet again that not only is he wooden, but he may not in fact have a genuine bone in his body. Cruz has been hammering Donald Trump on his "New York values" for weeks on the campaign trail and assumed that this well-worn brickbat would position him well for a debate matchup with Trump. Instead, Cruz's stale critique of Trump's hometown handed the mogul an opportunity to speak firsthand about a seminal moment in recent American history.

As I watched Trump wax poetic about the Big Apple's response to 9/11, I was reminded of Dr. Seuss' "The Grinch": "Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day." (At least for a few tender moments.)

Cruz's winking and nodding as he trots out his tired "New York values" schtick attempts to tap into conventional wisdom about what we know about New Yorkers and those who live in "The East" and on that other "godless" coast. But it just doesn't hold water.

What Cruz misses is that the New York response to 9/11 is now a quintessential American story: It is who we all aspire to be. Regardless of skin color or your station in life or all the baggage that weighs us down when the artifice is stripped away, we want to be like all those hardened New Yorkers who opened their hearts week after week, month after month, as they rebuilt lower Manhattan. It is a story of gumption, tenacity and hope in the midst of crushing grief.

I knew folks who died in that monstrous inferno on that clear September day. And I have friends who worked in buildings in close proximity to the Twin Towers who ran for their lives. And I have a friend who taught in Brooklyn who watched in horror with her class as the buildings came down and she feared her partner had been hit by the collateral damage. There was incredible caring and tenderness that emerged in that city on that ghastly, surreal day.

When I lived in the West, I repeatedly heard a narrative that many Westerners hold dear: "We Westerners are just friendlier than you folks 'back East.'" And yet we lived in our house for six months before a single neighbor came over to introduce themselves.

One of the kindest, most generous people I know is from Los Angeles, that supposedly notoriously fake "Tinseltown." Far from phony, she embodies bigheartedness. And although I often miss the mark as I aspire to her munificence, she is truly a guidepost for me and so many in our circle of friends. She reminds me constantly, through her deeds and spirit, that our worn-out regional narratives are now obsolete, if they ever really were useful shorthands at all.

As Cruz trotted out his tired slams of "New York values" in early January, a young African American man gave his life to save a fellow New Yorker. Stephen Hewett Brown was crushed to death after saving a woman from a malfunctioning elevator. His last words to her as he shoved her to safety? "Happy New Year." He was only 25.

Generosity of spirit, kindness, and selflessness are not the byproducts of specific cultivation in particular regions like some kind of personality "terroir." We are all susceptible to the allure of simple cliches. But we are a better people, a kinder nation, when we reject them.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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