Brown bags, Bezos and ballyhoo: Another week in Seattle


Brown bag imageOne reason that I started a blog focusing on Seattle upon becoming New To Seattle two years ago is that it didn’t look like there would be any shortage of interesting material to write about. Events of the past week certainly reaffirm the accuracy of that belief.

First off was a memo from the Seattle Office of Civil Rights urging city employees to avoid using “brown bag” to describe meals workers bring to lunch-time functions and “citizens” to describe people who live in Seattle. The office’s Elliott Bronstein wrote since not everyone living in Seattle has U.S. citizenship, “residents” would be a better term. As for “brown bag,” he contended it was offensive to blacks because brown bags were once used in the era of segregation as a reference standard to decide if someone was white enough. “Lunch-and-learn” or “sack lunch,” he said, would be preferable.

After being reported by SeattlePI, this got enormous pick-up around the country, and undoubtedly will prove to be Bronstein’s 15 minutes of fame.  The general narrative playing elsewhere is that this was the latest howler from the Big Brother, politically correct, pot-smoking thought-police yahoos running America’s most pretentious and self-described progressive big city.

Typical of the continuing–and, one would think, extremely rare–national conversation concerning a characterization of food containers in Seattle was a passage in a column by guest columnist Geoff Caldwell in today’s edition of The Joplin Globe, 1,600 miles away in Missouri:

One big problem with the brown bag usage ban in Seattle is that it’s hard to find evidence that this tactic was employed in any major way across the country. Now I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard such a claim. And a quick Internet search revealed that neither had the rest of the world. One etymology site after another refers to brown bag lunch as just that, a lunch in a brown bag. It takes some deep digging to find even a trace of the skin color test referenced by Bronstein. It turns out that the term was only used in the early 20th century by some in the New Orleans area to screen party/event attendees by skin color. That Bronstein would use a long-abandoned practice used by so few in one geographic area as the basis for banning an innocuous phrase used by all races for decades adds a new rung to the ladder to lunacy. Does anyone doubt that if “brown bag” was truly racist that Al Sharpton wouldn’t have already held God knows how many marches demanding immediate federal legislation to ban such “hate” speech?

As I suggested here recently, the state of race relations in Seattle–historically, long among America’s whitest big cities–is not nearly as good as civic boosters might proclaim. So I’d say Bronstein’s civil rights office still has a lot of work to do. But it’s just silly to go after a phrase like brown bag that almost no one–including blacks–thinks is pejorative.

Then we had the stunning news–and it truly was stunning–that Seattle’s own Jeff Bezos is using his own personal debit card to buy the legendary Washington Post for $250 million. Of all the commentary I’ve seen, the most interesting was by my neighbor Sam Howe Verhovek on the Seattle online website Crosscut. In the face of Bezos’s soothing written pledge to preserve The Post, Verhovek pointed out that Bezos said exactly the same thing in 1999 about the bookstore industry–which he then proceeded to largely destroy using his Amazon.com as the battering ram. Top-quality journalism–which The Post still produces–requires a certain amount of employee inefficiency. But that seems completely counter to the way Bezos runs Amazon.com. I say, look out, Post Co. employees (and their readers).

Finally, we get to the ballyhoo: the results of yesterday’s primary election for mayor of Seattle, which winnowed down the field from nine to two. They are incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn and State Sen. Ed Murray. Both liberals, they politically are thisclose on the issues. So I suspect the election will turn more on personalities and the ability of each candidate to muster their supporters to the post office (in Seattle and most of Washington State, elections are by mail-in ballot), which hereabouts is sometimes is out of stamps.

Although neither candidate strikes me as particularly charismatic or remarkable in any obvious way, I predict the mayor’s race here will get far more national and even international attention than it really deserves as November nears. Why? One reason is that it’s an off-year for national elections, and the news media have to report on something. A second is the presence of a new Seattle bureau for the new Al Jazeera America 24/7 cable news network, which will be looking for easy, cheap things to cover and which would force others to follow.

Another reason, and maybe the main one, is this: Who can resist the lure to cover the battle to be among the Big Brother, politically correct, pot-smoking thought-police yahoos running America’s most pretentious and self-described progressive big city?

Why, even The Washington Post might drop in for a look–maybe brown-bagging it, too.

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9 Responses to Brown bags, Bezos and ballyhoo: Another week in Seattle

  1. Pingback: Looming spotlight: Seattle suburb vote on $15 minimum wage | New To Seattle

  2. It is fascinating, and I indeed am New To Seattle. But it seems to me that his “brown bag” memo briefly resonated very far and very wide.

  3. paulenelson says:

    Elliott Bronstein is a fine fiction writer who was on the board of the long-running Red Sky Poetry Theater for over 20 of its 25 years. To guess that this is his 25 minutes of fame is an unfortunate (& all too easy) thing to write and does confirm that the author is either new to Seattle, or ignorant of the members of its literary arts community. That said, I think bagging the use of the phrase “brown bag” is a good example of Seattle’s out-of-control PC culture. Remember where the phrase started and that gives you a sense of the politics of the town. Fascinating to outsiders I am sure.

  4. I welcome unsolicited spam calls. A fair number of them–especially from dodgy charities–have proved to be grist for my NewToSeattle.com mill.

  5. I have great memories of going with my parents when they voted. I’m grateful for the chance to take each of our kids with us to vote at least once before King County went to all mail-in. It was especially meaningful when we took our newly adopted Vietnamese children as a civics lesson. The one good thing about the main-in votes is that once all members of a household have voted, THE PHONE CALLS STOP!

  6. As one who is no fan of long lines, I don’t mind the mail-in (or drop-off) ballot procedure at all. Before becoming New To Seattle, I voted by absentee ballot almost all the time, even in jurisdictions where it really wasn’t encouraged. But I do wonder how a lack of polling places is changing the dynamic of last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts. People start voting in mass numbers way before election day.

  7. The whole “brown bag” ban seems like overreaction, but whatever. I do agree on “citizen.” I am a citizen of the United States, but a resident of whatever city I happen to be living in. I don’t have the same level of commitment, since no passport is required to change my address.

    As a citizen, I do miss going to the polling place to vote. Don’t know about the big city, but in the farther reaches of King County we could at least leave our ballots in a drop box (in this case, literally a cardboard box, which didn’t make us feel too secure). My husband and I drove, but another hearty suburbanite brought his on his bike – cheaper than stamps, he said. Ah for the days of community and running into your neighbor at the polling place.

  8. Kevin Kelley says:

    To those who wring their hands over Bezos’s purchase of the Post, I say, “what, you thought the Grahams were going to save the paper?”. SOMETHING has to happen if the fourth estate is to continue to fulfill its role in a free society.
    I’m not unconcerned about what will evolve with the likes of Bezos and John Henry taking over important newspapers, but such changes are necessary, even if they will be messy and things might get worse before they get better. These were inevitable developments which may send us careening from misstep to mayhem to catastrophe before eventually (and hopefully), the ship of journalism rights itself. ANY ownership of media outlets is fraught with conflict of interest, whether it’s private party, corporate, or non-profit. That’s simply not an issue with these latest events.
    My greatest fear, which truly does keep me up at night, is the public’s acceptance of rumor and opinion as fact. It’s easy to claim that the internet is killing journalism, but the culprit is the citizenry (oops, “residents”).
    If we’re willing to accept un-vetted hogwash for truth, we’ll have no one to blame when government and big business and shysters plow us under. We fired the guards.

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